from the high-tech-thugging dept
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has long made its own case for abolishment. Before ICE earned its current reputation as a fake-school running, report-altering, rogue agency interested in ejecting as many non-white people from America as possible, ICE ran interference for entrenched industries.
This led to things like ICE officers raiding small repair shops to prevent people from having their iPhones fixed without Apple’s explicit blessing (and premium fees), or seizing websites en masse without even the slightest nod towards due process.
That was supposedly the “customs” part of its enforcement efforts. Once Donald Trump took office, ICE was given permission to take the gloves off its immigration enforcement efforts. Galvanized by rhetoric that portrayed any brown person as inherently dangerous (and propelled by the enthusiasm of a failed casino owner who has filed for bankruptcy multiple times), ICE went all in on punishing people who didn’t seem white enough to be allowed to live in this country.
Because ICE mainly deals with people it doesn’t consider to be people (alleged scofflaws, undocumented immigrants), it has repeatedly decided things like local laws and/or the US Constitution do not apply to its activities. Sidestepping Supreme Court rulings and long-held constitutional rights, ICE has partnered with private contractors to engage in surveillance very few people would consider to be either lawful or constitutional.
What kind of monster has ICE become? A recent report — sourced from hundreds of public records gathered by several rights organizations — says ICE’s surveillance dragnet is almost unimaginably large. And it definitely surpasses anything its supposed first level of oversight (that’s your Congressional reps, folks!) believes ICE is engaged in.
Let’s just start with the set of bullet points listed in the “American Dragnet” report covering the results of this comprehensive, two-year investigation into ICE’s surveillance activities.
ICE has scanned the driver’s license photos of 1 in 3 adults.
ICE has access to the driver’s license data of 3 in 4 adults.
ICE tracks the movements of drivers in cities home to 3 in 4 adults.
ICE could locate 3 in 4 adults through their utility records.
So. Why does an agency mainly focused on non-Americans have access to so many records pertaining to actual Americans? Well… because it can. For several reasons.
The Third Party Doctrine eliminates the expectation of privacy needed to create a warrant requirement. State and local partnerships with federal agencies allow agencies like ICE to trawl local law enforcement databases. Advancements in tech have increased the number of inputs ICE can access, as well as the productivity of the devices adding those inputs. And hardly anyone in power seems to be interested in directly overseeing ICE, much less pushing back against its dragnet expansion.
Since its formation in 2003, ICE has desired more data and less oversight. Thanks to this combination of contributing factors, it is now sitting dead center in this perfect storm.
After 9/11, ICE paired those programs with much broader initiatives, tapping vast databases held by private data brokers as well as state and local bureaucracies historically uninvolved with law enforcement. Through those initiatives, ICE now uses information streams that are far more expansive and updated far more frequently, including Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) records and utility customer information, as well as call records, child welfare records, credit headers, employment records, geolocation information, health care records, housing records and social media posts.
Since 2003, ICE has spent $2.8 billion on surveillance and data collection. The ROI has been tremendous. Leveraging law enforcement partnerships and private contractors has turned ICE into a surveillance entity on par with the NSA — and all without attracting too much attention from its Congressional oversight.
ICE trawls drivers license databases because some states allow immigrants to get licenses before they become citizens. This doesn’t mean every immigrant targeted is here illegally. Driving is essential in America, and immigrants (undocumented or not) need to get to work, buy groceries, visit relatives/friends… all of this requires the driver to possess a valid license. This may be an easy way to find immigrants subject to removal but it also gives ICE agents the ability to surf DMV databases for other reasons, including their own personal amusement.
Some immigrants may not trust the government. But they still need the basics of life, like electricity and running water. ICE is all over this as well. Not only does it harvest records from private utility companies, it leverages the capabilities of other private companies to make sense of this data, as well as make the agency one step further removed from both the process and accountability. This free ride to utility records may be (belatedly) coming to an end thanks to the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden, but for years it was just another way ICE was able to access records belonging to millions of actual Americans.
So, how does ICE end up running a massive surveillance apparatus that has mostly flown under the radar? Well, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The reasons listed above — the tech explosion, the support of multiple presidents, the lack of meaningful oversight, the resourcefulness and drive of the agency itself — all contributed to the erection of this massive dragnet.
But it also happens in a vacuum. This one is created by a nearly complete lack of oversight, something that’s likely prompted by ICE’s directives. When an agency is tasked with removing non-Americans, it’s easy to ignore its means and methods since it’s only dealing with people we (both as constituents and representatives) deem are not worthy of the rights the federal government can barely be persuaded to recognize when dealing with natural born citizens.
Most congressional leaders did not learn about ICE face recognition scans of DMV photos until The Washington Post ran an exposé on the practice, reporting on records obtained by the Center on Privacy & Technology. […] ICE’s surveillance initiatives have regularly flown under Congress’ radar. While a few political leaders have pressed ICE in oversight letters and used appropriations riders to end the most aggressive of ICE’s actions, to date there has not been one full congressional hearing or Government Accountability Office (GAO) report focused on ICE surveillance.
The report ends with several recommendations. At the top of the list is the request that Congress actually get back into the oversight business. It also recommends most state-level oversight to ensure local law enforcement agencies aren’t ignoring state laws to provide ICE with access to government databases or private companies’ records. And it says ICE should not be allowed to use utility company records for the purpose of seeking out people to deport.
Thanks to the release of this report, Congressional members will no longer be able to pretend they’re unaware of ICE’s massive surveillance dragnet. This will hopefully prompt fast and direct action that limits what ICE has access to and what it is allowed to do to carry out its deportation efforts. The fact that a majority of US citizens are subject to the same surveillance should hopefully tip the scale towards swift Congressional action.