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US Immigration Officials Have Put Most Americans Under Surveillance: Report on 2-Year Investigation

According to its key findings, ICE has used face recognition technology to search through the driver's licence photographs of approximately one-third (32%) of all adults in the US. (Twitter)

According to its key findings, ICE has used face recognition technology to search through the driver's licence photographs of approximately one-third (32%) of all adults in the US. (Twitter)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spent an estimated $2.8 billion on surveillance, data gathering and data-sharing programmes between 2008 and 2021

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has developed a sophisticated surveillance dragnet to spy on most people living in the United States without the need for warrants and often circumventing state privacy laws, such as those in California, a two-year investigation by Washington-based Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology has revealed.

According to its key findings, the ICE has used face-recognition technology to search through the driver’s licence photographs of approximately one-third (32%) of all adults in the US.

It also stated that the agency has access to the driver’s licence data of three of every four (74%) adults and tracks the movements of cars in cities, where nearly three of every four (70%) are adults.

“When 3 in 4 (74%) adults in the US connected the gas, electricity, phone or internet in a new home, the ICE was able to automatically learn their new address. Almost all of that has been done warrantlessly and in secret,” added the report, which was published on May 10.

The ICE has been accused of overreach in its monitoring practices directed at immigrants and Americans by privacy law experts, civil rights advocates, and attorneys through the years.

DOMESTIC SURVEILLANCE AGENCY?

According to the Georgetown report, ‘American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21 Century’, the agency has evolved into something of a broader domestic surveillance agency, going well beyond its immigration enforcement authority.

“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,” highlighted the report.

The findings also showcased that the ICE now uses far more extensive and updated information streams, such as 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, as a result of those initiatives.

The ability of computational tools for sorting, matching, searching, and analysis, combined with access to those new data sets, has greatly increased the scope and frequency of ICE surveillance.

$2.8 BILLION SPENT

As per the analysis, the ICE has spent an estimated $2.8 billion on surveillance, data gathering, and data-sharing programmes between 2008 and 2021.

It should be noted that the report was created by researchers using the results of hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests.

The report highlighted that the fact that ICE was performing face recognition scans on driver’s licence photos astounded senior lawmakers – even those with insight into the United States Department of Homeland Security operations.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the longtime chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, denounced the practice as “a massive, unwarranted intrusion into the privacy rights of Americans by the federal government, done secretly and without authorization by law”.

ICE’s surveillance initiatives have frequently slipped under the radar of Congress. While a few political leaders have pressed ICE through oversight letters and appropriations riders to end the most aggressive ICE actions, a full congressional hearing or Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on ICE surveillance is yet to come.

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first published:May 11, 2022, 19:57 IST