A new study shows the immigration service has collected data on most Americans. It’s the latest in a worrying trend.
By Farrah Hassen/Other Words
Growing up in the Southern California suburbs, government surveillance never worried me. But my Syrian-American parents were more cautious. They often warned me not to talk politics on the phone in case Big Brother was snooping around.
As a teenager, I dismissed their concerns. “Listen, we’re not in the Middle East,” I would say.
But my parents knew better. I soon had a rude awakening after the September 11 attacks.
Almost 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were arrested after the attacks and often held for months without charge. Arabs and South Asians were racially profiled and expelled for minor immigration violations. The FBI began policing mosques across America.
As part of post-9/11 homeland security reforms, Congress created the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2003, ostensibly to fight terrorism and enforce immigration laws. But the truth is that ICE used its newfound authority to spy on almost everyone in the United States.
An independent two-year investigation has now revealed that ICE has continued to collect data Hundreds of millions of Americans under a legally – and ethically – questionable surveillance system that largely eludes public oversight.
The Georgetown Law Center for Privacy and Technology uncovered this dragnet after filing over 200 Freedom of Information Act requests and reviewing ICE contract records from 2008 to 2021.
In its May 10 report, the center found that ICE was spying most Americans without a warrant and circumvented many state privacy laws, such as those in California. The authors conclude: “ICE is now acting as a domestic surveillance agency.”
ICE conducted this monitoring by reaching out to third parties such as state motor vehicle agencies, large utility companies, and private data brokers such as LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
From these sources, ICE was able to access the driver’s license data of 3 out of 4 adults living in the United States and scanned one-third of the driver’s license photos using facial recognition technology. ICE is also able to view the records of over 218 million utility customers nationwide, including more than half of California residents.
Not surprisingly, this surveillance network has hit immigrant communities the hardest. The agency has targeted immigrants for deportation by cruelly exploiting their trust in public institutions, such as when undocumented people apply for a driver’s license or sign up for basic utilities like water and electricity.
These practices indicate an agency that has clearly pushed its limits. ICE does not have Congressional authority to conduct this type of bulk data collection on the public. This exaggeration underscores the need to move US immigration law away from the deportation-driven status quo.
Unfortunately, this ICE program is not an isolated case. It’s part of a broader domestic surveillance apparatus that spans decades and multiple federal agencies — including the FBI, CIA, and NSA — and ultimately affects all of us.
In the 1960s and 1970s, federal agencies spied on anti-Vietnam War protesters and civil rights activists. More recently, in 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had created a massive surveillance program that was secretly collecting phone records from millions of Americans, regardless of whether they were suspected of wrongdoing.
And this February, newly declassified documents revealed the CIA’s secret mass data collection program to spy on Americans. The nature of the data remains classified, but Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) have called for more transparency in the agency’s surveillance of Americans.
We should all be alarmed at this growing domestic surveillance state. Left unchecked, they undermine public confidence in our democratic institutions and erode our civil liberties, particularly the contested right to privacy.
The history of government surveillance shows that we can never take this right for granted.