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Science & Technology

2-year investigation reveals ICE has data on most of the American public

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has the tools to spy on almost any American. A recent investigation into ICE's operations found that the agency has long gone beyond its immigration enforcement mandate. It's been getting around state and local privacy laws to collect huge amounts of data from the American public. This two-year investigation culminated in a recent report released from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology.

Nina Wang is one of the authors of that report and she joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Nina.

NINA WANG: Thank you very much.

FENG: So I read this shocking statistic in your report, which is that ICE can locate 3 out of 4 American adults through their utility records. There are state laws that are meant to prevent ICE from getting that data from public utility companies, even driver's license information from the DMV. But you've discovered in your report that ICE has been circumventing these laws. How are they doing this?

WANG: Yeah. In the past, if ICE wanted to obtain utility record information on a specific individual, it would in most circumstances need to go directly to the gas, water or other utility company and issue a subpoena for that information. However, ICE has found a very convenient way to sidestep that requirement. ICE has been able to just buy up the utility records of almost every single person in America. So this includes utility information, driver data, images of license plates when you drive past a toll, property records, employment records and sometimes even social media. So these are huge databases that really capture a 360-degree view of a person's life.

FENG: In the past, ICE has been known to use this kind of data to identify and conduct raids on undocumented immigrants. Those rates have dropped under the Biden administration. But if ICE is gathering data on not just these undocumented immigrants but most Americans, do you know what they're doing with this data?

WANG: Yeah. So the really alarming thing is that ICE is so secretive about its surveillance practices that it's incredibly difficult to know exactly how it's using all this information. ICE certainly does use this data to target people for deportation. But there are currently no restrictions that limit ICE to any specific use cases, nor is there any mechanism for transparency to the public that would hold them accountable to these use cases.

FENG: So we should say that we reached out to ICE for comment, and they told us that they do use various forms of technology to investigate violations of the law while respecting civil liberties. And they focus on individuals who, quote, "pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security." Did ICE say anything to you when you were writing this report about why they needed all this data?

WANG: We have reached out to DHS, and we have sent them a copy of our research. However, they have not responded directly to us.

FENG: And if this kind of surveillance that you describe has been going on for at least a decade because of all this data we are generating and can't help but generate, why has this been difficult for lawmakers to rein in?

WANG: Well, I would say that ICE surveillance is so secretive that many lawmakers simply have no idea what's happening. For example, we found that Rhode Island was the first state in which ICE ran face recognition searches on the entire state's DMV database. This was in 2008. It took Congress over a decade to discover that this was happening. And it wasn't because ICE disclosed this information, but rather because Congress learned about it in the newspaper. So we're seeing that lawmakers simply haven't had the chance to put limits on ICE surveillance because they often have no idea that these programs even exist.

FENG: And finally, there's a history of tension between immigrant communities and ICE. I imagine this new information you're telling me about here would only deepen that lack of trust.

WANG: Absolutely. When ICE conducts surveillance on communities, it often deters immigrants from activities that are essential to the safety of all of society - when people are afraid to go to the police or visit the doctor when they're sick or obtain proper licensing to drive a vehicle.

FENG: That was Nina Wang. She's a co-author of a recent report by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology that uncovered the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's use of far-reaching surveillance on the American public. Thanks for being on, Nina.

WANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.