Tech Companies Are Profiting Off ICE Deportations, Report Shows
Tech and data companies are building—and profiting from—the Trump administration’s deportation machine, providing local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies with the data analysis and tracking software necessary for a massive web of surveillance, a new report shows.
The “Who’s Behind ICE? The tech and data companies fueling deportations” report, prepared by Empower LLC and commissioned by the Latino and immigration rights organizations Mijente, the National Immigration Project, and the Immigrant Defense Project, details an expansive network, and shows that key tech companies—including Amazon, Palantir Technologies, and Forensic Logic—are profiting from it.
Earlier this year, NBC News reported based on a public records search that Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Thomson Reuters, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, and Palantir all have active contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the Department of Homeland Security’s expansive network of person-centric data systems, built for an information-sharing initiative between various levels of law enforcement, poses not only a threat to immigrant communities, but to marginalized communities, activists say.
ICE collects data, which it uses to build profiles of undocumented persons, with the intent to arrest, detain, and deport them. Information Technology (IT) spending accounts for nearly 10% of DHS’s budget, or $6.8 billion, making it the largest IT budget in the federal government, according to data from the DHS Congressional Budget Justification FY 2019. This level of mass surveillance and data collection and sharing opens the door to a much wider net that could broadly target people of color, incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people, and leftist activists, including Black Lives Matter, environmental activists, and antifascists, activists say.
“The Trump administration is pushing an incredibly racist and xenophobic policing agenda. Tech and data companies’ involvement is part of this expansion,” Jacinta Gonzalez, Mijente’s field director tells Fortune. “The government could be contracting tech companies for environmental reasons, but instead it’s targeting communities of color, specifically people organizing for their rights.”
Mijente has pressured Palantir to drop its $51 million contract with ICE to build a web case management system that helps the agency surveil, track, and deport immigrants across the country. The group targeted Palantir and Amazon over the summer at Burning Man, where activists brought a giant cage labeled with “ICE” to the Nevada music festival known to attract the tech leaders of Silicon Valley.
The database created by Palantir uses information pulled from the DHS, FBI and other sources to build profiles of people who have crossed the border, including “schooling, family relationships, employment information, phone records, immigration history, foreign exchange program status, personal connections, biometric traits, criminal records, and home and work addresses,” the Intercept reported last year.
Meanwhile, Amazon receives millions of dollars to host Palantir, as well as backups of DHS’s vast database of biometric information on its web servers, according to the report. The two companies are dominating the market to meet the federal government’s data storage needs, building an increasingly effective deportation and incarceration infrastructure for the Trump administration, activists say.
Amazon, which is now the wealthiest corporation in the world, has more federal authorizations to store government data than any other corporation, with 204 authorizations compared to Google’s 27, according to data from the FedRAMP Marketplace.
Amazon faced backlash from employees earlier this year for selling its facial recognition technology, Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Florida, and for its partnerships with companies providing technical and data support to ICE. In an open letter, employees criticized CEO Jeff Bezos for the move, arguing that these technologies help further militarize the police, and fuel the detention and deportation of immigrants.
“Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify ‘people of interest,’ raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments—such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists—will be seen as fair game for Rekognition surveillance,” the ACLU wrote in a blog post about the technology. The civil liberties group added that the Rekognition software, which can monitor “all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports,” poses a threat to dissent broadly, as more Americans continue to attend public protests.
“Surveillance and silencing of communities that express dissent is nothing new, but technology facilitates it so much more that it reaches new levels,” says Mijente’s Gonzalez. “This concentration of power and influence is unprecedented in a lot of ways.”
Policing software provided by Palantir and Forensic Logic’s COPLINK program enables Information sharing between ICE and state and local law enforcement. Many of the cities with Palantir contracts across California are sanctuary cities, according to Gonzalez, who says there have been more and more policies introduced to prohibit this kind of data sharing by private parties.
Palantir software has been implemented by DHS fusion centers across California, as well as by police departments in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Burbank; and sheriff’s departments in Sacramento, Ventura, and Los Angeles counties. The company has received more than $50 million from these agencies since 2009, mostly financed by DHS grants, the report shows.
Fusion centers were created to centralize intelligence gathering, analysis, and dissemination into a single integrated system, accessible to law enforcement agencies from the local level up to the federal intelligence community. They are one of the largest tools for DHS and ICE information sharing, and ICE’s largest data source. Fusion centers have been used to monitor and target immigrants, as well as activists.
“Fusion centers were set up for counterterrorism, but it became ‘all crimes, all threats, all hazards’ because terrorism isn’t a real threat,” Brendan McQuade, formerly a visiting assistant professor at DePaul University told the Intercept in 2015. The DHS used the intelligence-gathering centers to monitor Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson. They were also used to spy on the social media accounts of Black Lives Matter activists in Boston.
“We’ve never seen mass surveillance not abused,” Brian Hofer, the chair of the city of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission tells Fortune. According to Hofer, surveillance of this scope is usually first applied to the most vulnerable communities, in this case undocumented persons, and then to a larger population. “IBM intentionally automated the Holocaust with census data and punch cards. Now you can get all this data and apply analytics to it and can do even more harm.”
Hofer said that this mass collection of data is not being used to track “terrorism,” as DHS might suggest. Instead, it’s “being applied to anyone who challenges the status quo.”
Biometric collection has been used in cases of mass arrests at protests, for example. Hofer described a scenario where antifascists were arrested while defending the Berkeley area against white supremacist groups over the summer. “Antifa gets arrested, fingerprinted, DNA swabs, and all charges are dropped but each of those people are in a database now,” he explains. The information is later shared with the FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System, he says, which automatically goes to DHS.
Similarly, this mass surveillance has created a culture of intimidation by ICE officials, who monitor immigrants involved in organizing, activists say.
Maru Mora-Villalpando, an undocumented woman who has lived in the U.S. for more than 25 years said she was at her home in December with her daughter when she received a notice from ICE ordering her to appear in court for deportation proceedings. “To me, it’s a clear sign that ICE wants me to stop my job,” she told the Seattle Times. “It was an intimidation tactic.”
“Maru was intentionally targeted for her activism and organizing,” Gonzalez says. “It was a way to silence dissent and it will affect how people approach public life and engagement in activism.”
According to Gonzalez, the most important thing people can do moving forward is to realize that these moments require work from everyone: “The point is we can stop this right now. This is the moment where we can have some sort of intervention.”
Fortune has reached out to Amazon, Palantir, and Forensic Logic for comment and will update this story with their responses.