US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has long been a magnet for controversy over its cruel treatment of migrants. But there’s another, potentially more alarming reason to worry about it: ICE has slowly transformed into a vast domestic spying agency that could easily be turned on the American people, whether citizens, documented, or undocumented.
That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, which argues that through contracts and partnerships with private data brokers, utility companies, DMVs, and other government bureaucracies, ICE has quietly built a system that lets it peer into and track the personal lives of all Americans on a never-before-seen scale. Titled American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century, the report paints a picture of an agency that’s crossed ethical lines, dodged legal restrictions, and radically expanded the scope of its activities with little to no public oversight or debate.
“ICE has created a surveillance infrastructure that enables it to pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time,” states the report.
The numbers involved are staggering. According to the report, ICE has used facial-recognition technology to scan the driver’s license photos of roughly a third of US adults, can access the driver’s license data of three-quarters of adults, and can track the movements of cars in cities that make up 70 percent of the adult population. In at least five of the seventeen jurisdictions where undocumented people can apply for licenses, ICE can search state driver records without a warrant.
ICE’s partnership with data brokers who collect information from utility companies gave it access to data on more than 218 million utility customers in every state, allowing it to automatically find out the new addresses of three in four adults when they connected their electricity, gas, internet, or phone. The agency is swimming in so much data, states the report, that it works with half a dozen contractors to sort through and understand it all. One of those companies, Peter Thiel’s Palantir, is the third-largest company it contracts with overall.
The proliferation of personal records has been a boon to ICE, which has tapped these vast reserves of data to track down and deport undocumented immigrants. That includes not just records from DMVs and utility companies, but geolocation data and employment and health care records as well as call records. The agency has not only spent $96 million on biometrics from 2008 to 2021; its access to credit headers from all three major credit reporting agencies gives it the names, addresses, phone numbers, and more of vast swaths of the population with real-time updates. It also means that when public outrage or government action forces the agency to end its relationship with one data broker, it simply moves on to another.
ICE doesn’t just draw on others for data but does surveillance on its own. The agency spent around $389 million on telecom interception over the 2008–2021 period, states the report, using the equipment it’s bought to track in real time individuals’ phone calls and internet use, as well as hoover up and store their email and social media activity.
To make sense of this colossal haystack, ICE has spent around $569 million on data analysis over the same period, with wiretap translation services and storage contracts making up half of its telecom interception spending. The agency has given $186.6 million to Palantir alone, whose programs linking various databases allow ICE to “access and visualize an interconnected web of data pulled from nearly every part of an individual’s life.”
It’s all been very effective for the agency, which is able to track down and arrest long-residing undocumented residents who have had no run-ins with the law and no reason to bring suspicion upon themselves. DMVs have often been more than willing partners in this. “We’re going to have to make you an honorary ICE officer!” one ICE agent emailed a DMV employee particularly helpful in sharing information about potential targets.
You don’t need to be a migrant to find this alarming. As the report points out, ICE’s surveillance system is an indiscriminate dragnet without limits or checks. Congress has never held an oversight hearing on it, nor has it authorized such sweeping bulk collection of records, which is ripe for all kinds of potential abuse. Congress passed an entire law in 1994 regulating the sharing of DMV records out of concern for privacy, yet any ICE agent, it turns out, can easily get their hands on the same records without any sort of oversight and barely even leaving a paper trail. And it’s an open question which other entities are drawing on the same company and data broker records and for what purpose, given there’s little stopping them.
“Most states lack any meaningful privacy protections for the data generated by customers of gas, electric, water, telephone and cable companies,” the report states.
The news that ICE is now effectively a domestic surveillance agency collecting and accessing records on most adults in the country is even more alarming given the way the agency has more and more branched out beyond its mission of immigration enforcement. In the last few years, ICE has surveilled protesters and helped create a database of journalists, activists, and attorneys it deems worthy of extra scrutiny, and it arrests and detains documented residents, including full US citizens, with shocking regularity. At one point, the agency’s acting director called for politicians supporting sanctuary cities to be charged with crimes.
In other words, there’s no small risk that unless it’s, at minimum, rolled back and severely curtailed, the massive domestic spying apparatus ICE currently operates could one day be turned on the American public as a whole. Just think back to the summer of 2020, when the Department of Homeland Security — the enormous national security bureaucracy rushed into existence after the September 11 attacks — was deployed against protesters by then president Donald Trump as an almost military-style security force, going so far as to snatch demonstrators off the street in unmarked vans.
It’s not a far-fetched idea. ICE has already begun tentatively surveilling and sweeping up political dissidents and citizens, and as this most recent report demonstrates, it’s radically expanded its powers despite having no legal or congressional authorization to do it. If ICE’s mission creep carries on at the same pace, eventually it may not just be undocumented immigrants trying to live their lives in peace who have to fear an agent knocking on their door or trawling through their personal data, but protesters, journalists, and anyone else critical of the government, too.