Emails sent by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reveal how the agency used social media and information collected by for-profit data brokers to track and arrest an illegal immigrant in Southern California,media reported. According to emails disclosed in federal court documents, officials discussed the man’s affair and noted his “heartbreak” by posting a photo posted to his father’s birthday party.
ICE eventually arrested the man after he “checked in” to Home Depot on Facebook. The emails are a rare glimpse into the expanding surveillance-net searches that ICE uses to track potential immigrants for deportation. In this case, ICE used Thomson Reuters’ controversial CLEAR database. The database is part of a growing business data broker industry that contracts with government agencies, essentially circumventing barriers that could prevent governments from collecting certain types of information.
The emails were collected by the government in response to a motion by a federal public defender whose client was charged with felony unlawful re-entry. Since the vast majority of deported immigrants are not criminally prosecuted, it is unusual for ICE to disclose the details of its investigation so deeply.
To protect him and his family, the man is known as “Sid” and has lived in the United States since he was a year old. He worked as a roof repairman to support his family. His children are American citizens. He had previously been deported to Mexico on suspicion of nonviolent felony possession of stolen goods at an auto repair shop, and local law enforcement had not found him since he returned to the United States.
“I went back to my time with my family,” Sid told the judge at his sentencing hearing in January. “I’m sorry. That’s it. “
According to court documents, the investigation into Sid began on February 22, 2018, when ICE’s National Center for Crime Analysis and Targeting generated a lead and forwarded it to ICE’s office in Los Angeles.
ICE periodically sends data sets of deportees to NCATC to run the agency’s data analysis system to see if they have re-entered the United States. The system extracts data from other federal agencies and commercial data brokers to match the names of deportees to the nearest car registrations, utility bills and mailing addresses. The data is either publicly shared with ICE (e.g. with government agencies such as the post office) or collected by data brokers and then sold to ICE (as many power providers or other local laws prohibit companies) to share data directly with ICE.
After receiving the lead, an official from the ICE office in Los Angeles reached out to the agency’s Pacific Law Enforcement Response Center. PERC complements the work of ICE field staff by providing intelligence support and placing detainees in detainees across the United States so that ICE can detain them.
On May 4, 2018, a PERC official wrote back that he had found Sid’s Facebook account. Sid uses his legal name on Facebook, although it’s a very common one and is not easy to distinguish.
PERC officials explained that he had used Thomson Reuters CLEAR to find Sid’s home address and his parents’ address.
The officer then ran the CLEAR address provided via Google Maps and compared it to a photo Sid posted on Facebook at his father’s backyard birthday party. The address is one of the matches – which means the Facebook account belongs to the person ICE is looking for.
“Facebook can make tracking so easy when you need to find a fairly generic name,” said Sarah St. Vincent, a surveillance expert at Cornell Technologies, which runs clinics targeting digital abuse. “When the Department of Homeland Security tries to compile someone’s files, such information, such as what many believe is a short-lived online shared photo, will be permanent. “
“Happy birthday to my father,” Sid captioned one of the photos at the birthday party.
A former Reuters reporter criticized the news outlet’s $20 million contract with ICE to use CLEAR, saying it “linked Reuters’ reputation to government espionage.” Thomson Reuters executives stressed that the company’s news reporting and data collection departments were completely separate.
In addition to confirming that the Facebook page belongs to Sid, PERC officials also investigated his family life.
“When Target wrote a general statement about the missing person on his page and later mentioned how sad he was, the target may not have been deleted. Target does have a daughter, possibly a son (a video taken on a football pitch shows a teenage boy). “
The PERC report also identified sid and his parents’ driver’s license information. Since 2013, California has offered driver’s licenses to undocumented people, but the program has been criticized for not protecting information in ICE. Several recent arrests of undocumented people stem directly from their applications for a driver’s license in California.
In a case that was debated in front of the 9th Circuit earlier this year, ICE officials were able to track down an immigrant who was included in the national driver’s license database after renewing his license in California in 2015. All ICE needs to find them by name for the entire NCATC, and California has provided their home address.
In Sid’s case, ICE agents began monitoring Facebook profiles after confirming that they were eligible. When Sid “checked in” on Home Depot’s Facebook page on May 24, 2018, ICE officials waited outside the store for Sid to drive out of the parking lot, then stopped and arrested him.
Sid’s previous deportation order was immediately reinstated, but he was not deported. Instead, he was charged with felony illegal re-entry. His criminal case ultimately exposed ICE’s strategy, but even prosecutors included it in the briefing, and those familiar with the case found it unusual.
Several senior federal public defenders who heard the case told The Intercept that clients accused of felony illegal re-entry either requested lower fees or dismissed their cases before making such disclosures.
According to an August 2019 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report, more than 55 percent of all federal crimes prosecuted in fiscal year 2018 are related to immigration, the vast majority of them for misdemeanors and illegal entry. As part of the “zero tolerance” policy, this means that the number of such prosecutions will increase by 87 percent in the first year of the Trump administration. As a result, federal defenders have seen a sharp increase in the number of cases they have seen.
Julie Mao, deputy director of Just Futures Law, said that while federal defenders have the right to discover products, “federal immigration prosecutions are often seen as merely transferring paperwork.” Throughout the ‘windmill’ system where lives are being destroyed, people are pleading for these cases, and the defendants are not fighting them because federal defenders often feel they can’t fight or challenge them. In these cases, there are usually few discoveries. “
Julie Mao argues that even when the government does hand over the information it found, it focuses on proving a person’s identity and immigration history. “Usually, it’s never about the individual’s location or how he or she was subsequently arrested,” she says. When federal defenders ask for this information, it does open an entire black box at the local level or federal immigration enforcement. “
In January, Sid was sentenced to 21 months in prison after a judge found him guilty of illegal immigration. His case is currently being appealed and he will continue to serve his sentence. Once the sentence is complete, he will almost certainly be deported again.
This spring, the Brennan Center for Justice released a comprehensive Department of Homeland Security report on social media surveillance. “While those seeking immigrant benefits bear the brunt, their American friends, relatives, and business associates are also affected by this repository,” it said in its section on ICE. “
This summer, the Trump administration expanded the scope of “expedited repatriation” across the United States. Advocates worry that the expansion blocked by a federal judge will increase ICE’s reliance on social media to track, arrest and deport citizens and non-citizens without the opportunity to conduct judicial review.