ICE Is Also Using Utility Databases Run By Private Companies To Hunt Down Undocumented Immigrants

from the whatever-isn't-nailed-down-by-legislation-or-precedent dept

ICE has always had a casual relationship with the Fourth Amendment. Since it's in the business of tracking foreigners, it has apparently decided the rights traditionally extended to them haven't actually been extended to them.

Anything not nailed down by precedential court decisions or federal legislation gets scooped up by ICE. This includes location data pulled from apps that would appear to be subject to Supreme Court precedent on location tracking. ICE routinely engages in warrantless device searches -- something its legal office has failed to credibly justify in light of the Riley decision. And the Fourth Amendment -- along with judicial oversight -- is swept away completely by ICE's practice of deploying pre-signed warrants to detain immigrants. The agency is also not above forging judges' signatures to send "dangerous" immigrants packing.

The latest exposure of ICE's tactics shows it will gather everything and anything to hunt down people who, for the most part, are just trying to give their families a better shot at survival. Whatever can be had without a warrant will be had. That's the message being sent by ICE, and relayed to us by Drew Harwell of the Washington Post. (h/t Magenta Rocks)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have tapped a private database containing hundreds of millions of phone, water, electricity and other utility records while pursuing immigration violations, according to public documents uncovered by Georgetown Law researchers and shared with The Washington Post.

ICE’s use of the private database is another example of how government agencies have exploited commercial sources to access information they are not authorized to compile on their own. It also highlights how real-world surveillance efforts are being fueled by information people may never have expected would land in the hands of law enforcement.

I'm not a law enforcement professional. Nor am I a immigration and customs officer. But it beggars belief that utility records can provide evidence of illegal immigration. While I understand ICE is likely using the records to find people it has already flagged as illegal immigrants, the justification for demanding these records is nonexistent. ICE may want to match names to addresses but it's on shaky legal ground when it demands records under the theory that utility bills may offer evidence of illegal immigration.

And yet, ICE can do this. This is the Third Party Doctrine in action. If immigrants give their names to utility companies, ICE can get this info without a warrant. It's a "voluntary" exchange, even though there's nothing voluntary about exchanging personal info to access the little things in life that make it worth living, like electricity and indoor plumbing.

But is it evidence of illegal immigration? There's a lot that's still unsettled at the point ICE obtains this information. Immigration status is ultimately handled by judges. Until then, everything else is apparently fair game, including utility bill records.

At the top of this evidentiary food chain is a private company. And that company doesn't appear to care who accesses its database or for what reason.

CLEAR is run by the media and data conglomerate Thomson Reuters, which sells “legal investigation software solution” subscriptions to a broad range of companies and public agencies. The company has said in documents that its utility data comes from the credit-reporting giant Equifax. Thomson Reuters, based in Toronto, also owns the international news service Reuters as well as other prominent subscription databases, including Westlaw.

Thomson Reuters has not provided a full client list for CLEAR, but the company has said in marketing documents that the system has been used by police in Detroit, a credit union in California and a fraud investigator in the Midwest. Federal purchasing records show that the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense are among the federal agencies with ongoing contracts for CLEAR data use.

Even if you believe immigrants shouldn't be given constitutional protections, you have to be concerned that a private company is amassing data from private citizens and granting access to government agencies. This isn't how America is supposed to work. But that's the way it actually works, thanks to opportunistic data brokers and the hundreds of utility companies willing to sell customers' data to whoever will buy it.

ICE is paying Thomson Reuters $21 million a year for access. Reuters -- a company that needs to answer to shareholders -- has zero interest in terminating this working relationship. On the public sector side, ICE needs to continue to justify its existence. So it has no interest in terminating contracts that enable it to apprehend and eject immigrants. The legality of its efforts is unsettled. Since no one above ICE in the governmental org chart has yet determined this is unacceptable, it will continue. And private databases like this still lie beyond the minimal protections afforded by federal privacy laws.

Until someone's willing to step in and curb ICE's all access pass to everything that's just on the outside of current Fourth Amendment case law, ICE will continue to hoover up everything it can, no matter how negligible its effect on immigration enforcement. And, as long as companies can continue to demand a wealth of info in exchange for services, there will always be an endless supply of third parties only a subpoena away from handing over personal information to federal law enforcement.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, databases, ice, privacy

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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Smartassicus the Roman, 2 Mar 2021 @ 11:19am



    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 2 Mar 2021 @ 11:31am

    And yet with all of this extra information scooped up & added to the pile we still can't keep people safe.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 2 Mar 2021 @ 1:19pm

    So they

    They use the data, based on NAMES on the accounts.
    WOW, Sneaky. but I will BET, they go look up the person First and find out if he was BORN IN THE USA.
    At least most of the time, AFTER they got caught sending USA citizens BACK to mexico.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    danderbandit (profile), 2 Mar 2021 @ 1:26pm

    $21M a year? Government by and for the people? I don't think so. This is not how I want my tax money being spent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 2 Mar 2021 @ 4:13pm

    I take then, that Biden is okay with all of this?

    It seems that not much has changed between Trump and Biden when it comes to ICE's overreach.

    Once it was decided ICE had gone rogue, I'd think the administration would have ordered it to stand down but its conducting business as if it's 2017.

    That includes detaining asylum seekers in overcrowded pens infected with COVID-19.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 2 Mar 2021 @ 11:56pm

      Re: I take then, that Biden is okay with all of this?

      He's been in office for 42 days, having inherited almost zero plan for dealing with the pandemic or vaccine rollout, hundreds of senior positions that either need to be restaffed or who were staffed by Trump nominees who were chosen for their desire to destroy the department they were installed in, following a president who openly refused to participate in any transition work after he refused to accept that he lost.

      It's right to be sceptical or concerned about what's being done in the short term. But, no matter what your preferred pet project is for him to focus on, I think it's a good thing to allow time for him to do the job before criticising him for not doing it right.

      18 months down the line, if this stuff continues then I hope things are back to normal enough to start giving him heat for progress and hold him accountable for failures, but he hasn't even got to the halfway point of the traditional 100 day period where incoming leaders promise their first early results in a normal peaceful transition of power without an ongoing international disaster.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 2 Mar 2021 @ 7:54pm

    Never seen it spelled that way before

    ICE has always had a casual relationship with the Fourth Amendment.

    Was not aware 'casual' could also mean 'antagonistic, dismissive and contemptuous of', learn something new every day I guess...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2021 @ 9:11pm

    And if you've ever wondered how hackers get your information on your home address and other personal info, here it is, displayed for you to see.

    You can protect your data all you want, you can not protect yourself from data bases that are gathered outside your control. You don't have to be guilty of anything other than wanting the normal things you would have in a first world environment.

    Data bases are always a target for hackers and if there is one thing this site has covered well, it's been the results of data bases, poorly secured. Since it is outside your control, you have no idea how well any of this data is protected and as has been demonstrated in the past, sometimes is not protected at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2021 @ 9:59am

    no free lunch

    No one is better than anyone else, but if you're pro open boarders you're going to have immigrants that need help. If you're going to help (cloth, feed, provide shelter) immigrants it's going to cost money -- your money.
    Similar to abortion, not everyone is in favor of it, but if it's the law of the land, everyone will pay for it in taxes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 3 Mar 2021 @ 10:45pm

      Re: no free lunch

      Why is it that nobody who obsesses over borders can spell the word?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 4 Mar 2021 @ 6:38pm

      Let's help them then.

      My response to this got sucked up for mod review and then seemed to vanish.

      Right now, we spend crazy amounts on detention centers to pack them into disease-ridden rooms and let ICE agents spit on them, where they get insufficient food or care, and no medical care.

      If we stuck them in a Hyatt and paid for room service it would be cheaper. If we send them to boarding school for white kids of rich families, it would be cheaper. So if we just kitted them up with bag lunches and bus tickets to wherever they're going, it'd be cheaper.

      And that's before we're talking about ICE's immense budget to kidnap nonwhites and send them to where they'll have a tough time not getting killed or trafficked.

      Taxpayers already pay ridiculous amounts into our immigration program (or our keep-immigrants-out program), and instead of something that works we get a fuckton of atrocities committed by state agents in the name of the United States.

      Let's stop doing that and use some of the money we save to do the other thing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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