US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has built a massive surveillance system that gives it access to the personal details of almost every person in America, a two-year investigation by Georgetown University law center in their report, American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century has found. The Center on Privacy & Technology released one of the most comprehensive reviews of ICE activities, concluding that the federal organisation has strayed well beyond its duties as an immigration body to become what is in effect a domestic surveillance agency.
Operating in secret and with minimal public oversight, ICE has amassed a formidable armory of digital capabilities that allows its agents to “pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time”. The agency operates enormous banks of information stored by state and local government, utility companies, social media platforms and private data brokers. The end result is that Ice enjoys almost universal reach, with its intelligence weaponised through the use of powerful algorithmic tools for searching and analysing data. Almost all of that activity, the report points out, is done in the absence of warrants and in secret, beyond the purview of federal and state authorities.
The vast data to which Ice now has access includes:
Driver’s license data for three of every four adults living in the US
Data drawn from the utility records of 75% of adults, covering more than 218m unique utility consumers in all 50 states
Information on the movements of drivers in cities that contain 75% of the US population
Facial recognition technology drawn from the driver’s license photos of at least a third of all adults
ICE now had an unfettered ability to trace the movement of your vehicle on the roads, look up your address from your water or electricity bills, and conduct face recognition searches on your ID photos, all without needing a search warrant.
“These tactics open massive side doors around existing privacy protections, and many lawmakers still have no idea.”
Nina Wang, a policy associate at the Center on Privacy & Technology and a report author, said: “In its attempts to target an ever-growing number of people for detention and deportation, Ice has reached into the private homes and lives of almost every person in America.”
The Georgetown researchers suggest the motivation was partly to increase the number of deportations of undocumented people and partly as part of the US government’s “larger push to amass as much information as possible about all of our lives”. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Ice surveillance system is how it has been used to skirt controls introduced by cities and states and designed to protect communities from precisely these kind of intrusive searches. After many legislatures introduced so-called “sanctuary” policies that prevented police forces working with Ice agents to facilitate deportations, Ice simply sidestepped the restrictions by finding other channels through which it could acquire intelligence, including through DMVs, private data brokers and utility companies.