'Invisible dragnet' exposed: US ICE becomes surveillance agency to abuse own citizens' private data
Published: Jul 19, 2022 03:01 PM
Photo: ICE police officer

Photo: ICE police officer

An invisible "dragnet" that has shrouded the Americans for years has been uncovered in a recent research report which shows that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has become a domestic surveillance agency by establishing an efficient monitoring network to collect its residents' private data, far beyond the scope of authorized immigration law enforcement.

Chinese cybersecurity experts expressed great concerns over how many more "invisible" US government agencies, such as ICE, are overreaching their authority and abusing private citizens' personal data.

The research report, entitled "American Dragnet: Data-driven deportation in the 21st Century," was released by US Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology Law in May. After two years of investigations, the center found that in the name of counterterrorism, ICE has pushed ethical and legal boundaries to build a surveillance dragnet that covers most Americans by bypassing Congressional oversight and privacy laws. 

It also means that the US government's unlimited access to data surveillance has expanded from "regular" law enforcement departments such as the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation or police department to administrative agencies like ICE. 

For most of its history, immigration enforcement in the US was a small data affair, relying primarily on ad hoc tips and information sharing agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies. 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.

The center found that by reaching into the digital records of state and local governments and buying databases with billions of data points from private companies, ICE has created a surveillance infrastructure that enables it to pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time. In its efforts to arrest and deport, ICE has - without any judicial, legislative or public oversight - reached into datasets containing personal information about the vast majority of people living in the US, whose records can end up in the hands of immigration enforcement simply because they apply for driver's license, drive on the roads or sign up with their local utilities to get access to heat, water and electricity.

According to the report, ICE used facial recognition technology to search through the driver's license photographs of around one in three (32 percent) of all adults in the US. The agency has access to the driver's license data of three in four (74 percent) adults and tracks the movements of cars in cities home to nearly three in four (70 percent) adults. When three out of four (74 percent) of adults in the US connected the gas, electricity, phone or internet in a new home, ICE was able to automatically learn their new address. Almost all of that was done without any warrant and in secret.

ICE has invested heavily in surveillance and acquired advanced surveillance technology far earlier than people realize. A review of over 100,000 spending transactions by ICE reveals that the agency spent approximately $2.8 billion between 2008 and 2021 on new surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives. Those transactions also reveal that ICE was building up advanced surveillance capacities roughly half a decade earlier than previously known. Until now, the earliest records obtained by the Center on Privacy & Technology suggested that ICE began requesting and using face recognition searches on state and local data sets in 2014. 

To locate its targets, ICE takes data that people give to state and local agencies and institutions in exchange for essential services. ICE often accesses that data without  permission or even awareness of the entity that originally collected the information. ICE has also taken advantage of the vulnerability of unaccompanied children seeking to reunite with their families, the report said. 

ICE was also found to exploit people's vulnerability and trust in institutions to get its hands on more data. For example, the agency leverages people's trust in the  Department of Motor Vehicles to target people for deportation, it leverages people's need for water, gas, electricity, phone and internet to target deportations and uses interviews with unaccompanied children to find and arrest their family members.

The report was followed by several US media outlets that exposed ICE's surveillance practices. An article in The Verge, a technology news website, called for private companies to stop working with ICE and for greater government oversight of such partnerships. An article in The Well News, an independent news organization in the US, confirmed an incident in 2020 in which an undocumented immigrant was taken away after applying for a driver's license, and criticized ICE for abusing immigrants' trust in the US. According to a report in The Hill, ICE developed a GPS phone app called Smartlink to track immigrants during the pandemic, claiming it was only to ensure their attendance at immigration court hearings, but it has been used on a large number of immigrants with no criminal records and no detention. It is not known whether there are other hidden uses.

For years, domestic privacy law experts, civil rights activists and lawyers in the US have accused ICE of overreaching its immigration surveillance tactics and affecting most ordinary Americans, yet ICE officials have ignored reports and continued to do so. 
A cybersecurity expert told the Global Times on Tuesday that the report shows the US government is truly a "hacker empire" which not only carries out cyberattacks around the world to obtain information, but also applies comprehensive monitoring measures on its own people.

However, in the name of "national security," the US government's "double standards" hegemonic act of ignoring the rules and going beyond the bottom line will not be accomplished in a day. Driven by commercial interests and so-called national security, it is unclear when the huge surveillance network that ICE has built will be effectively controlled and it is also a matter of great concern how many more "invisible" government agencies, such as ICE, overreach their authority and abuse citizens' private data exist, the expert said. 

With an eye on domestic enemies, the US has been monitoring American citizens for a long time. The country has imposed long-arm jurisdiction over foreign affairs, supplemented by multiple espionage and cyberattacks. All kinds of "national security" statements fabricated by the US government are being discovered as false one by one by the world and they are becoming the most prominent political tool of the US in seeking hegemony, the expert noted.