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Washington Post: ICE used private utility database to pursue illegal immigrants

This story is doing its best to demand your outrage but it’s not really working on me. The basic idea is that ICE has used access to a private database of utility bills to identify some people. The database is owned by Thomson Reuters, the same company that own the Reuters news agency.

The database, CLEAR, includes more than 400 million 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…

Nina Wang, a policy associate at the Georgetown center, said the database offered ICE officers a way to pursue undocumented immigrants who may have tried to stay off the grid by avoiding activities as getting driver’s licenses but could not live without paying to keep the lights on at home.

“There needs to be a line drawn in defense of people’s basic dignity. And when the fear of deportation could endanger their ability to access these basic services, that line is being crossed,” she said. “It’s a massive betrayal of people’s trust. … When you sign up for electricity, you don’t expect them to send immigration agents to your front door.”

So is this legal? It appears to be. The Post points out that the Privacy Act of 1974 regulates the use of government data by federal agencies but in this case we’re not talking about government data. Thomson Reuters is a private company located in Toronto that gathers this database sell the information to various groups. In fact, ICE had a $20 million contract to use the data so it’s not as if this was a secret. But immigration activists are eager to suggest this is tantamount to government surveillance.

Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior campaign organizer at the Latino civil rights group Mijente, said her group has been alarmed and “horrified” by how quickly ICE has expanded its surveillance network through the use of private databases, which members suspect have been used by ICE officers to plan raids on people’s homes.

“People would say to us, ‘How did ICE get my address? I’ve never had interactions with the police, I’ve never used this address publicly,’” she said. “It puts people in a tremendously difficult situation. They have to decide whether to have electricity or subject themselves to having ICE get access to this information.”

There are some important details missing from the story, in part because ICE didn’t want to talk about their investigative techniques in the newspaper. But it seems to me whether most people find what ICE is doing here objectionable will probably depend on how they are approaching this. Is ICE using this database to identify illegal immigrants at random? If so that might be legal but probably wouldn’t have a lot of support from the public. On the other hand if ICE is using this data to track down people who have a) disappeared on immigration court dates or b) committed crimes while here illegally then I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of outrage.

The story cites one claim that a “pleasure visitor” who overstayed a visa was being pursued by ICE. How common is that? Is that an accurate assessment? It’s not clear.

Even during the Trump administration, ICE was pretty intent on rounding up and deporting people who had committed or been accused of crimes. That’s why the sanctuary city policy became such a big issue, because it prevented local police and sheriffs from cooperating with ICE and holding people until ICE could get to the jail to pick them up. ICE argued that by refusing to cooperate with them, agents would be forced to track these people down in ways that were less safe for everyone involved.

The bottom line for me, and I think for many Americans, is that people who come here illegally and then commit crimes or those who claim asylum and then disappear should expect very little in the way of privacy. Even President Obama’s DACA program explicitly excluded those who had committed crimes from being eligible. So if ICE used a private database of people’s gas and electricity bills to locate illegal immigrants who were wanted and/or already subject to deportation then they deserve a pat on the back, not criticism.

Again, it’s not clear that’s what is happening from the story. Maybe there’s more to it than that. But at least for now, I can see several legitimate reasons this could be done that wouldn’t strike me as outrageous.