I’ve never been particularly concerned about my data privacy–at the university, the tech support people drove me nuts with their log-in protocols and automatic encryption of “sensitive” emails. Like most Americans who pretty much live online, buy online and communicate online, I recognized that there is a tradeoff between convenience and some degree of exposure, and–again, like most Americans–it was a tradeoff I was (and still am) willing to make.
Government surveillance is another matter entirely.
Governing Magazine recently reported on activities being conducted–mostly surreptitiously–by ICE. Those activities are truly dystopian.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has crafted a sophisticated surveillance dragnet designed to spy on most people living in the United States, without the need for warrants and many times circumventing state privacy laws, such as those in California, according to a two-year investigation released Tuesday by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology.
Over the years, privacy law experts and civil rights activists and attorneys have accused ICE of overreach in its surveillance tactics directed at immigrants and Americans alike, but the Georgetown report paints a picture of an agency that has gone well beyond its immigration enforcement mandate, instead evolving into something of a broader domestic surveillance agency, according to the report, called “American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century.”
The report outlines the extent into which ICE has gone in order to form a large-scale surveillance system that has reached into the lives into ordinary people living in the U.S. Skirting local laws intending to protect individuals’ privacy, the agency has turned to third-party outfits— utility companies, private databases and even the Department of Motor Vehicles in some states — to amass a trove of information from hundreds of thousands of Americans and immigrants to target people for deportation.
This surveillance network isn’t some penny-ante operation; the article says that ICE spent “an estimated $2.8 billion between 2008 and 2021 on new surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives.
ICE was established after the Sept. 11 attacks, and given sweeping powers to fight terrorism and enforce immigration law. Since its formation, the article tells us that without much oversight, the agency has collected data on hundreds of millions of Americans. It has frequently been accused of crossing legal and ethical lines to “weave a vast surveillance system,” according to the Georgetown report.
“I was alarmed to discover that ICE has built up a sweeping surveillance infrastructure capable of tracking almost anyone, seemingly at any time. ICE has ramped up its surveillance capacities in near-complete secrecy and impunity, sidestepping limitations and flying under the radar of lawmakers,” said Nina Wang, policy associate at the Center on Privacy & Technology and a co-author of the study.
Anti-immigration Americans who might be tempted to shrug this off because it’s “only targeting illegal immigration” shouldn’t be sanguine. Thanks to the methods being used to collect the information, the agency has data on pretty much anyone who has ever applied for a driver’s license, driven on the nation’s roads, or contracted with their local utilities to get access to heat, water and/or electricity.
Among other findings, the report documents that ICE has drivers’ license data for 3 in 4 adults living in the U.S.; has scanned at least 1 in 3 of all adults’ driver’s licenses with face recognition technology; can track the movement of vehicles in cities that are home to nearly 3 in 4 adults; and can locate 3 in 4 adults through their utility records.
What was that famous quote from Martin Niemoller? “First they came for the socialists…”
The fact that one federal agency has clearly “gone rogue” would be less chilling if the United States wasn’t in the midst of a concerted effort by the Right to replace democratic norms with a Neo-fascist regime. The GOP has been transformed in to a White Nationalist cult that is all too ready to embrace Storm Trooper methodologies, and while its MAGA base represents a distinct minority of Americans, thanks to gerrymandering, the Electoral College and other antiquated electoral systems, it’s able to exercise far more power than its percentage of the vote would otherwise allow.
Worse still, we find ourselves in this position at a time when we no longer have a Supreme Court majority willing to protect settled precedents and the rule of law.
If Donald Trump (or one of his clones) wins the Presidency in 2024, do you have any doubt that he would make use of the ICE surveillance data to stamp out dissent and punish his opponents?
Reading this report in the wake of the Buffalo massacre raised another chilling question: why hasn’t ICE used its data to fight domestic terrorism? How deeply are MAGA bigots already ensconced in this clandestine agency?
How far down the road to autocracy have we come?