ICE reached a new low: using utility bills to hunt undocumented immigrants

Did you know that our government has effectively been forcing people to choose between heat in their apartment and the risk of deportation? It’s an appalling policy. I wrote this for The Guardian.

If you had to choose between having running water at home or risking your home being raided by the authorities, which would you choose? The correct answer is: this shouldn’t even be a question.

But it’s become one. The startling truth is that signing up for even basic utilities in this country has turned into a gamble for many people, particularly undocumented immigrants. Last week, the Washington Post revealed that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) has paid tens of millions of dollars since 2017 for access to a private database that contains more than “400m names, addresses and service records from more than 80 utility companies covering all the staples of modern life, including water, gas and electricity, and phone, internet and cable TV”. The information has been mined by Ice, the Post reported, for immigration surveillance and enforcement operations.

Neither Ice nor any other federal agency should have unfettered access to this data. In fact, there are strict protocols and regulations that determine how the federal government can gather your information and when it can infringe on your privacy, much of this is codified in the Privacy Act of 1974, as the Post notes. So how are federal agencies like Ice getting around these legal safeguards, which would otherwise prevent them from scooping up such data on their own and without a court order? Simple. They just buy it. With taxpayer money.

Ice paid almost $21m for access to a database called Clear, which is owned by the multinational media conglomerate Thomson Reuters. Clear is reported to contain billions of your records, including employment and housing information, credit reports, criminal histories, vehicle registrations and data from utility companies in all 50 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. It’s also updated daily.

This isn’t just surveillance capitalism. It’s worse. The main idea behind surveillance capitalism is that we, the world’s internet users and smartphone aficionados, have been persuaded to give up the wealth of our personal information in meager exchange for convenient access to big data’s apps and platforms. Think free email. Meanwhile, big data takes our information and gleefully monetizes every element of us. The result is micro-scale predictive algorithms that have grave consequences for our democracy, our freedoms and even our humanity.

But what Ice has been doing is different. The marriage of government and surveillance capitalism reveals yet another depth to our contemporary, pixelated nightmare. We already know that the Department of Defense, for example, was buying the location data of millions of Muslims culled from popular Muslim prayer apps and dating apps. We also know that Ice and the FBI have deployed flawed facial recognition software on millions of state driver’s licenses without the knowledge or consent of those license holders. Then there was the time that Amazon tried to sell use of its own facial recognition software, called Rekognition, to Ice. Or the ways that Ice subcontracted with a company called Vigilant Solutions in a massive, automated license plate-reading program. According to the ACLU, “Ice has access to over 5bn data points of location information collected by private businesses, like insurance companies and parking lots, and can gain access to an additional 1.5bn records collected by law enforcement agencies”. These examples are, of course, only the tip of the surveillance iceberg.

Because the power of the government is so immense, the union of government might with surveillance capitalism should worry every single one of us. Facebook may want to know everything about your shopping and surfing habits, but perhaps the worst it can do to you individually is put you in a metaphorical “Facebook jail”. Governments, needless to say, can send you to a real prison…

Read the rest here.

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