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ICE Has Quietly Been Forcing Schools and Abortion Clinics to Share Private Data

Since 2008, ICE has spent more than $2.8 billion on new surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives.

An exterior view of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Building in Washington, D.C., on January 5, 2023.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have requested information from news organizations, elementary schools and abortion clinics, according to documents received by Wired.

The agency has also demanded data from major tech firms, money transfer services, telecommunications companies, and utility companies by issuing administrative subpoenas known as 1509 custom summonses.

Although administrative subpoenas are only supposed to be used in criminal investigations about illegal imports or unpaid customs duties, the agency has issued more than 170,000 requests since 2016, averaging more than 70 per day.

“I don’t know what authority ICE thinks it has to issue these [administrative subpoenas],” Julie Mao, cofounder and deputy director of Just Futures Law, told Wired. “The law clearly says they are only supposed to be used for customs inspections.”

In multiple instances, ICE agents issued summonses to demand that news organizations reveal private information about their confidential sources, Wired reports.

In 2018, ICE issued immigration lawyer and blogger Daniel Kowalski a customs summons in response to a blog post he wrote that referenced a leaked ICE memo. In 2020, BuzzFeed News reported that it had received an administrative subpoena from ICE demanding that it identify the sources included in an article. The Seattle Times and The Bangor Daily News also received customs summons, according to the records received by Wired.

Emily Tucker, executive director at the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, reviewed the records received by Wired. “I can’t help but feel that the federal government is using ICE as a data vacuum,” Tucker told the publication. “They are looking for any way to access and integrate all kinds of data into massive databases.”

A two-year investigation by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology found that ICE operates as a domestic surveillance agency and has access to expansive information streams, including Department of Motor Vehicle records, utility customer information, child welfare records, credit headers, employment records, health care records, housing records and social media posts.

“Since its founding in 2003, ICE has not only been building its own capacity to use surveillance to carry out deportations but has also played a key role in the federal government’s larger push to amass as much information as possible about all of our lives,” the Georgetown report states.

In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, forcing ICE to disclose documents exposing the agencies’ purchase and use of Stingrays, also known as cell site simulators or IMSI catchers, which track and locate cell phones.

“The use of powerful, surreptitious surveillance equipment is concerning in any context,” said Alexia Ramirez, an ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project fellow. “But when agencies such as ICE and CBP [Customs and Border Protection], with a long history of abusive practices, evade requests for information and then obfuscate provided information, we should all be concerned.”

Last March, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) discovered that ICE agents had obtained millions of people’s financial records through a surveillance program that was being accessed by local and federal law enforcement agencies. Wyden requested that the Department of Homeland Security investigate ICE’s surveillance practices to determine if the agency had violated rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution. The number of customs summons fell dramatically immediately after Wyden’s investigation, according to the documents reviewed by Wired.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has doubled the amount of people who are imprisoned in immigrant jails, and quadrupled the number of people enrolled in ICE’s so-called “alternatives to detention” surveillance program — all while bragging about granting ICE a historic increase in funding.

“As we fight to abolish immigration jails, we must oppose the creation and expansion of different forms of movement control and surveillance,” Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director for Detention Watch Network, wrote in a Truthout op-ed on ICE surveillance. “We imagine a world where every individual lives and moves freely, and a society in which racial equity is the norm and immigration is not criminalized.”

The Biden administration has also implemented a number of anti-immigrant policies, many of which violate U.S. and international law. In February, Biden proposed a transit ban — virtually identical to one introduced by former President Donald Trump — that immigrant advocates say will endanger the lives of countless asylum seekers.

Just this week, more than 100 people embarked on a mass hunger strike in solidarity with immigrants imprisoned at ICE-run jails, who abstained from eating for more than a month to protest the “dehumanizing and unjust conditions of immigration detention.”

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