NEW ICE Privacy Impact Assessment Shows All the Way the Agency Fails to Protect Immigrants’ Privacy

DHS’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) proudly proclaimed its “first-ever Alternatives to Detention Privacy Impact Assessment”, bragging about the release of a document that the agency should have produced twenty years ago at the start of the so-called Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program. But the PIA that ICE produced is not just decades late, it is substantively deficient, likely wrong about key facts, and already outdated. This PIA process reflects the behavior of an agency that does what it wants and seeks justifications later.


To start, we need to recognize that ICE is an agency with a continuing history of unauthorized and abusive practices. This month alone, two major stories about ICE’s bad behavior broke. According to Wired, the agency is using administrative subpoenas, a tool meant to pursue customs violators, to request information from “elementary schools, news organizations, and abortion clinics”. And a database of ICE’s internal investigations demonstrates how ICE agents and hired contractors regularly violate the agency’s rules on database access, allowing for stalking, wrongful surveillance and the sale of government information. That is on top of a long history of impersonating police officersabusing immigrants in ICE detention, building a vast surveillance network of data purchased from brokers and other legally questionable means, and even detaining and deporting U.S. citizens. Any fulsome accounting for ICE’s impact on immigrants privacy and safety needs to consider that ICE agents and contractors are likely to abuse any data they have access to.

Under section 208 of the E-Government Act of 2002, every federal agency is required to produce a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) before it rolls out a “new collection of information … using information collection technology”. Agencies across the federal government routinely flaunt this requirement by doing their PIAs after they start using new technologies or initiating new collections. But no agency operates quite like ICE. For years, the agency has claimed that its Alternatives to Detention program is covered by tiny amendments to existing PIAs for other programs that failed to account for the size of the ATD program and couldn’t keep up with the technology that ICE was using. 

The Alternatives to Detention program is a system of electronic monitoring technologies that ICE applies to immigrants passing through the Southern border to the U.S or arrested in the U.S. and awaiting immigration hearings, along with immigrants who have had their hearings and are awaiting deportation. The ATD program is also frequently referred to as the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), though there are also several small pilot programs that do not rely heavily on surveillance technology.[1] ICE claims that ATD serves as a way to keep migrants out of detention facilities while ICE keeps tabs on them, but in reality the program has become something of a default for migrants crossing the Southern border. Historically, immigrants crossing the border would be released in the U.S. without any form of monitoring. Immigrants released without tracking reliably show up for…

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