Report: ICE is tracking habits and compiling data on the majority of Americans

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., July 8, 2019. The agency has what researchers call a "dragnet" surveillance system, compiling personal data and tracking the habits of 75% of Americans in attempt to deport undocumented people.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., July 8, 2019. The agency has what researchers call a "dragnet" surveillance system, compiling personal data and tracking the habits of 75% of Americans in attempt to deport undocumented people. (Gregory Bull, Associated Press)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has what researchers call a "dragnet" surveillance system, compiling personal data and tracking the habits of 75% of Americans in an attempt to deport undocumented people.

That's according to a two-year report released Tuesday by Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology that labels ICE a "domestic surveillance agency."

ICE has gathered information on driver's licenses using facial recognition technology, tracked movements of drivers in major U.S. cities, and compiled utility records for millions of Americans, allowing it "to pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time."

Almost all of the data gathering was done without a warrant and little public or congressional oversight, the report states, playing "a key role in the federal government's larger push to amass as much information as possible about all of our lives."

Consider these findings from the report:

  • ICE now has the driver's license data for 75% of American adults.
  • Drivers in nearly every major U.S. city are being tracked by ICE, amounting to 70% of Americans.
  • When 75% of Americans connected to utilities like gas, electricity or the internet, ICE was able to automatically learn their new address.
  • ICE has used facial recognition technology to search through driver's license photos for nearly one-third of the country.

Since 2008, ICE has spent $2.8 billion on surveillance, according to researchers who reviewed 100,000 spending transactions and hundreds of freedom of information requests.

'We've heard of this happening'

The report states that most state lawmakers were unaware of the surveillance happening at DMVs — that includes Utah, where ICE has previously used its facial recognition technology to search drivers license images, according to a Washington Post report.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was quoted in the report and has been outspoken about ICE's surveillance programs in the past. The findings, she says, were unsettling but not necessarily surprising.

"We've heard of this happening, we have raised concerns and have had multiple conversations with the Department of Public Safety," she said. "After reading this report, I'm definitely going to schedule a time to be with our commissioner, and also some of our other policymakers to make sure that we're protecting Utah residents."

Romero said the findings will only further erode trust in government, especially communities of color.

"It's not just people who are aspiring to be citizens. It's everyone," she said. "We should be concerned that this information is not only being gathered through the government, but through the private sector. The amount of freedom that ICE has is very alarming to me as a policymaker."

For years she has heard anecdotes of undocumented people applying for a driver's privilege card — an outlet for people unable to establish legal residency — then being deported a short time after.

"We tell people to do the right thing, get a driver's privilege card so you can get insured," she said. "... But now this information is being used to target these families."

Data from private companies and local governments

The report found that ICE routinely taps into data from a wide array of sources including private companies, state and local governments. A post-9/11 data sharing initiative between ICE and "private data brokers" gave the agency access to a sweeping array of data, some typically inaccessible without a warrant.

They include:

  • Data from a state's department of motor vehicles
  • Utility companies supplying water, electricity or internet
  • Phone records
  • Child care and child welfare information
  • Employment records
  • Geolocation information
  • Health care documents
  • Housing records
  • Open-sourced information from social media.

'Leveraging people's trust' in the Department of Motor Vehicles

Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., currently allow undocumented people to apply for a driver's license, on the condition they provide their legal names, dates of birth and addresses.

That has resulted in hundreds of thousands of undocumented people applying for a driver's license, the report states.

The report found:

  • In at least five of those 17 jurisdictions, ICE pulls data from state driver records with no warrant for "civil immigration enforcement."
  • In at least six of the jurisdictions, ICE uses facial recognition technology to scan driver's license photographs, searching for undocumented people, but inadvertently scanning U.S. citizens, in an attempt to carry out deportations.

"When undocumented drivers apply for licenses, they place a significant amount of trust in the state that their information will not be used against them. Allowing ICE to use driver records for immigration enforcement purposes is a profound betrayal of that trust," the report states.

Using utility data to target deportations

Using the private data broker Thomson Reuters, ICE buys and searches utility companies to target people for deportation.

Like DMV data, the agency obtains information from millions of U.S. citizens with no warrant in an attempt to deport undocumented people — the report found ICE has information from 218 million utility customers across every U.S. state and Washington, D.C.

"While undocumented people may avoid sharing their information with entities like DMVs, it creates extreme hardship when people cannot connect their homes with water, gas, electricity, phone and internet," the report reads.

Little to no government oversight

The report states that most members of Congress did not know of ICE's use of facial recognition technology until a 2019 Washington Post story — 11 years after the agency started using the technology to scan driver's license photos.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called it "a massive, unwarranted intrusion into the privacy rights of Americans by the federal government, done secretly and without authorization by law."

According to researchers, there has never been a full congressional hearing or Government Accountability Office report on ICE's surveillance program.

"We really have no jurisdiction over them," Romero said about ICE. "But I think this is a conversation that we should be having with our congressional delegation, and our executive branch about some of these practices, because they make me uncomfortable."

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Kyle Dunphey
Kyle Dunphey is a reporter on the Utah InDepth team, covering a mix of topics including politics, the environment and breaking news. A Vermont native, he studied communications at the University of Utah and graduated in 2020. Whether on his skis or his bike, you can find Kyle year-round exploring Utah’s mountains.

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