Revealed: US collects more data on migrants than previously known | US news

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Immigrants surveilled

Documents show immigration agency Ice and BI Inc gather more information on those in Isap program and store it for longer

Tue 26 Sep 2023 16.40 EDT

A US immigration enforcement program that tracks nearly 200,000 migrants is collecting far more data on the people it surveils than officials previously shared, and storing that data for far longer than was previously known, the Guardian can reveal.

Newly released documents show that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (Ice) stores some personal information the program collects on migrants through smartphone apps, ankle monitors and smartwatches for up to 75 years.

A facial recognition app that’s part of the program collects location information whenever someone logs into the app or makes a video call, the documents show, contrary to Ice statements that the app only logs location data when a migrant completes a mandated check-in through the app.

The documents were obtained by immigrants rights groups Just Futures Law, Mijente Support Committee, and Community Justice Exchange through a freedom of information request and a lawsuit.

They reveal that data collection by Ice is more extensive than was previously known to the public and even lawmakers, and raise fresh questions over the lack of transparency from the immigration agency and the company that runs the program, BI Inc.

“We learned there’s really no such thing as data privacy in the context of government mass surveillance,” said Hannah Lucal, a data and tech fellow at Just Futures Law. “The documents convey the alarming scope and scale of Ice’s growing system of data extraction and electronic surveillance monitoring.”

Ice and BI Inc did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

Ice’s ‘unlimited rights to use’ the data

The program in question, the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (Isap), is run on behalf of Ice by BI, which is a subsidiary of the large private prison corporation the Geo Group.

Billed as a humane alternative to keeping people in detention while their case moves through the immigration system, the program keeps track of migrants through ankle monitors, smartwatch trackers, phone check-ins or in-person visits.

But lawmakers and advocates have long demanded more transparency around how BI and Ice run the program, what data they collect through that surveillance system, how long they store that information and how they use it.

The documents show that Ice hasn’t been fully forthcoming in earlier questions about the information it tracks. In 2018, Ice told the Congressional Research Service that it monitored the location of program participants wearing an ankle monitor, but that it did not “actively monitor” the location of those being tracked through the program’s facial-recognition app, SmartLink. The agency said it only collected GPS data on those people during check-ins, when they are required to submit pictures of themselves from several angles to verify their identity and location.

However, an agreement migrants are required to sign when they are assigned SmartLink surveillance, made public as part of the document release, shows that location information is tracked much more frequently, including when users log into the app, start a video call through the app and enroll in it. Ice requires migrants to use the app far more frequently than for weekly check-ins. Olivia Scott, a former BI caseworker, said caseworkers were often asked by Ice to nudge migrants to log into the app, track the location and share that information with an Ice agent.

“They didn’t care what we said to the people [to get them to open the app],” Scott said. “They just needed a location.”

The documents also confirm that Ice ultimately owns the information BI collects on migrants through the program – information that, taken together, can paint a very detailed picture of someone’s life. The data collected through both the app and devices like ankle monitors include real time location history including common routes a person took, personal information such as addresses and employers, education information, financial information, religious affiliation, race and gender. The company also collects and stores a wide swath of biometric information, including images of people’s faces; voice recordings; weight and height; scars and tattoos; and medical information such as disabilities or pregnancies.

Ice is given “unlimited rights to use, dispose of, or disclose” the data that BI shares with it, the documents show – language that, according to privacy advocates, indicates that the agency can share this information with other agencies, including local law enforcement.

The management of that data is also regulated by Ice policies. According to a privacy assessment by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which encompasses Ice, all data collected through the program is stored in a DHS database that requires records be destroyed 75 years after they are first entered. BI keeps the data for seven years after a person is released from the program.

The information BI and Ice collect and store and what the two entities do with it can have far-reaching consequences for migrants, according to the records. For example, the documents show the data BI collects has helped Ice in arresting and detaining migrants. In one of the documents, BI says it “relayed participant GPS points” to Ice’s enforcement arm, which resulted in the “swift and discrete” arrest of more than 40 migrants.

The documents also show Ice’s enforcement arm (ERO) uses an opaque algorithmic scoring system to determine how much of a flight risk a person in the program is. The documents reveal the score – dubbed a “hurricane score” – is based on “risks factors”, though it doesn’t explain what those risk factors are, and BI employees’ weekly assessment of participants’ compliance with the program. If a person is determined by the algorithm to be more likely to abscond, it could lead Ice and BI to impose stricter levels of surveillance.

Maru Mora-Villalpando, a community organizer at immigrant advocacy group La Resistencia, who has worked directly with people in the program, said the revelations about the “amount of access” BI has to people’s personal information “and the unlimited control [BI and Ice] have over all the data” is “appalling”.

“We are a business to them,” she said.

“[The revelations] only make our case stronger for the end to the false idea that digital detention and monitoring of immigrants is an alternative to detention”, Mora-Villalpando said.

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