Earlier this year, we reported that the Central Intelligence Agency has been buying vast amounts of Americans’ personal information from private brokers who sell data in bulk. Then we learned that an agency within the Department of Homeland Security has been purchasing records of Americans’ financial transactions.
Now, thanks to a two-year, exhaustive study by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, we now know that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the latest federal agency to buy up vast quantities of Americans’ personal data, in this instance from utilities and state motor vehicle departments.
“By reaching into the digital records of state and local governments and buying databases with billions of data points from private companies, ICE has created a surveillance infrastructure that enables it to pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time,” write the authors of American Dragnet: Data Driven Deportation in the 21st Century.
After filing and studying hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests, as well as ICE contracts and procurement tools, scholars at the Center for Privacy & Technology unearthed startling facts:
Activists are upset that undocumented people are being conned into giving up personal information, despite state promises it won’t be used against them. Here’s how it works: Sixteen states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented people to apply for driver’s licenses, giving the undocumented reason to trust that their information will not be accessed. In many of these states, however, ICE gets the information anyway. In Oregon, for example, state lawmakers passed a law cutting off state data disclosures to ICE. But ICE still gets that data by buying it from Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
Some might say, well and good – these are illegal aliens after all, so let ICE go after them. But the larger implications of recent disclosures should alarm every American. Consider that, between the purchases of Americans’ data by DHS and CIA, the Department of Defense spying into religious apps, and the recent revelation that the FBI has conducted 3.4 million warrantless searches, it is clear that the federal government is weaving together the infrastructure for the kind of total surveillance that exists in the People’s Republic of China.
One doesn’t have to believe that this is happening because the federal government is executing an evil plan. Each agency is just looking for the best, off-the-shelf technology to make it easier to fulfill its mission. But thread by thread, the infrastructure for a total surveillance state is coming together. And if we’ve learned anything from decades of experience with surveillance, if a capability exists – even if it contrary to the Constitution, the law, and the expectations of Americans – someone will misuse it.
All the more reason for Congress to hold hearings this year on the extent of federal purchases of Americans’ personal information – and pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act.
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