How ICE is tracking illegal immigrants: the department found an effective, but illegal method
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigators have used a database of private utilities spanning millions to investigate immigration violations. As reported The Washington Post, government agencies are increasingly gaining access to private information that they are not authorized to collect on their own.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Police officers have connected to a private database containing hundreds of millions of records of phones, water, electricity and other utilities in pursuit of immigration violations, according to public documents uncovered by Georgetown law researchers and leaked by The Washington Post.
The CLEAR database includes over 400 million names, addresses and service records from over 80 utilities covering all the basic elements of modern life, including water, gas and electricity, as well as telephone, Internet and cable TV.
CLEAR documents say the database includes billions of records relating to people's employment, housing, credit reports, crime histories, and vehicle registrations from utility companies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is updated daily, which means that even a recent move or new utility subscription can be reflected in an individual search.
CLEAR is operated by the media and data conglomerate Thomson Reuters, which sells “legal investigation software” subscriptions to a wide range of companies and government agencies. The company filings say that utility data comes from credit reporting giant Equifax. Thomson Reuters, based in Toronto, also owns the international news service Reuters and other prominent subscription databases, including Westlaw.
The company indicated in marketing documents that the system was used by Detroit police, a California credit union and a Midwest fraud investigator. Federal procurement records show that the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense are among the federal agencies with valid CLEAR data contracts.
On Friday, February 26, the House Oversight and Reform Committee sent letters to executives at Thomson Reuters and Equifax asking for documents and other information on how ICE has used utility data in recent years.
“We are concerned that the commercialization of personal and utility customer data by Thomson Reuters and the sale of ICE's public domain is a breach of confidentiality, and ICE's use of this database is an abuse of power,” the letters, which were signed by Deputy Committee Chairman Jimmy Gomez, said. (California) and Rep. Raja Krishnamurti (Illinois), Chairman of the Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee.
Thomson Reuters sent inquiries to ICE, which declined to comment on its "methods, tactics or investigation tools," citing "law enforcement sensitivity." Equifax did not respond to requests for comment.
ICE did not disclose how often the service used the records to track people, saying such details should be kept confidential as they describe secure investigative techniques.
But the Immigration Investigator appeared to take notice of the access last June in an email addressed to Georgia Driver Services officials. The email was disclosed as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Georgetown Legal Center for Privacy and Technology and reviewed by The Post. In a heavily redacted email, the officer said that immigration authorities were pursuing a person accused of visa delays and that a search in unidentified official documents revealed that the target had “recently left” the address.
In a separate 2019 letter to the Texas Sheriff's Office, which was also received by Georgetown researchers and shared with The Post, Thomson Reuters said the CLEAR overhead offers investigators a powerful way to find "people who are not easily tracked through traditional sources."
Nina Wang, a political officer at the Georgetown Center, said the database offers ICE officers a way to pursue illegal immigrants who may have tried to stay away by avoiding activities such as getting a driver's license but couldn't live without paying for electricity at home.
“It is necessary to draw a line in defense of human dignity. And when fear of deportation could jeopardize their access to these basic services, that line is crossed, she said. "This is a massive betrayal of people's trust ... When you sign an electricity contract, you don't expect them to send immigration agents to your door."
ICE has a $ 21 million contract with subsidiary Thomson Reuters to provide data, although the subscription is about to expire. In November, ICE published a new petition for a "law enforcement database subscription," but it is unclear whether the Biden administration will renew the deal or finalize a new contract.
Equifax said it collects utility bill reports from the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange, a consumer credit reporting bureau that collects data on people's bills and payment history from companies including Verizon and AT&T.
The Bureau of Exchange defended its data collection as “empowering” the “underbanked community” because the records help large companies assess people's creditworthiness using “alternative data sources” beyond traditional credit reports.
It's unclear if the utility data comes from Equifax through NCTUE or some other source, although the two firms have a long-standing data-sharing agreement. Referring to the partnership in a letter to the Justice Department in 2001, an NCTUE spokesperson wrote that Equifax "is committed to finding and exploiting appropriate third-party data sharing opportunities."
Federal laws, such as the 1974 Privacy Act regulate how federal agencies may collect or use Americans' personal information, but they do not cover CLEAR or other proprietary databases, and federal law enforcement agencies increasingly look to them for information that would otherwise the case would not have been allowed to receive without a court order.
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Immigration agents have accessed information from a private license plate reader database containing billions of vehicle location records from tow truck scanners, toll roads and speed cameras. The agents searched photographs of people using facial recognition to see if they matched one of the millions of faces in state driving license databases.
US Customs and Border Protection officials have also used the location data of mobile phones without warrants to track people within the country. Data is collected through a variety of weather, gaming and other applications, then pooled and resold by companies to marketers and federal agencies.
The Inspector General of the Treasury Department said in a letter to Senators Ron Wyden, Maryland and Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts, first published by the Wall Street Journal, that similar methods of using commercial location data by the IRS could conflict with a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that tracking requires a warrant.
Lawyers for the IRS and other agencies argued that they did not need a warrant because phone users “voluntarily provided access” to data exchange applications.
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