On November 28, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) accidentally posted on its website the names, dates of birth, nationalities and detention centers of more than 6000 immigrants who claimed to be fleeing torture and persecution, reports Yahoo.
The unprecedented data leak could expose immigrants currently in immigration jails to retribution from the very people, gangs and governments they fled from, lawyers for the people who sought protection in the US said. It is expected that the personal information of persons seeking asylum and other means of protection should be kept confidential. Federal regulation generally prohibits disclosure without the approval of senior officials in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The agency is investigating the incident and will notify affected immigrants of the disclosure of their information. It said it would not deport immigrants it had posted in error until it was determined whether disclosure of the information would affect their cases.
The government will notify people who have downloaded the information that they must delete it.
ICE officials are concerned about the release of the data, which included information about migrants trying to avoid deportation to countries such as Iran, Russia and China. According to a spokesman for the agency, it is focused on fixing the problem quickly.
The agency mistakenly posted data that included immigrant names, case status, immigration prison addresses and other information during a scheduled update of its website.
Immigrant rights group Human Rights First notified ICE officials of the data breach on November 28, and the agency took steps shortly after to remove the data from its website. The file was contained on a page where ICE regularly publishes detention statistics.
The information was available for five hours, and officials quickly removed it after being notified of its release.
“This is an inadvertent disclosure and a violation of policy. The agency is investigating the incident and taking all necessary corrective actions," an ICE spokesman said in a statement.
The disclosure is "embarrassing" and potentially dangerous for those affected, another DHS spokesman said.
Many immigrants fear that gangs, governments, or individuals back home will find out they have sought protection in the US. Asylum seekers regularly ask their immigration lawyers if their home countries know about their applications. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a Cameroonian deported by the United States to his homeland was sued upon his return for "spreading false information in the United States about the Cameroonian government."
Anwen Hughes, a lawyer at Human Rights First, said she has a recurring nightmare of leaving a bag of client information on the subway.
Hughes never did. But the fact, she stressed, that this possibility haunts her nightmares, testifies to the seriousness of the disclosure of personal information of immigrants on the Internet. The lawyer hopes that the error will serve as a reminder to the government to be especially careful with such data.
“The willingness of refugees to trust the US government with their information depends on sound competence as well as a shared intent to uphold the law,” she said.
Diana Rashid, managing attorney for the National Center for Immigrant Justice, found the name of one of her organization's clients, a Mexican woman, on the list.
“We are deeply concerned about the safety of our client after ICE publicly shared this very sensitive information about her and thousands of others like her,” the lawyer said. She is seeking protection from expulsion because she fears persecution if she is returned to her country of origin. Disclosing this information makes the client more vulnerable to the harassment and abuse she fears if she is deported.”
The disclosure, said Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Center for Immigrant Justice, put people's lives at risk.
“The US government has a critical obligation to keep the names and information of asylum seekers confidential so that they do not face retaliation or further harm from the governments or individuals from whom they fled,” Altman said. "Publishing confidential data by ICE is illegal and ethically unfair, and this mistake should never be repeated."
Blaine Bookie, legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, said she knew of cases where immigrant detainees were threatened when their status was made public.
“Any public disclosure of information about asylum seekers could literally have life-or-death consequences, and the government must take every precaution to protect their safety,” she said.
The agency has made other high-profile mistakes over the years, including accidentally arresting US citizens.
"This episode adds to ICE's well-documented history of dysfunctions and lapses in internal accountability," said Nate Wessler, an American Civil Liberties Union privacy attorney.
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The agency has been heavily criticized over the years (at one point it was even the least loved federal agency), but it tried to change its practices during the Biden administration. Under Biden, ICE limited arrests of pregnant women and expanded "sensitive" areas, such as playgrounds, where arrests are generally prohibited.
The service said the data was released at 6:45 a.m. PT Nov. 28 and included names as well as information on 6 immigrants seeking protection. Shortly before 252 o'clock Human Rights First notified the service of the violation. ICE will report the disclosure to the lawyers of affected immigrants or to the immigrants themselves.
"This will allow non-citizens or their official attorneys to determine whether disclosure could impact their protection requirements," a service spokesperson said in a statement.
According to him, ICE, among other things, monitors the Internet for the purpose of possible re-posting of data.