ICE Operates a Sweeping 'Dragnet Surveillance System,' New Report Finds

ICE has spent $2.8 billion since 2008 developing surveillance and facial-recognition capabilities, mostly in secrecy and without real oversight.


U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has quietly built up a massive "dragnet surveillance system" that allows it to snoop without a warrant on "nearly anyone, seemingly at any time," a new study reports.

The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law released a report on Tuesday, "American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century," detailing how ICE has slurped up massive amounts of data from state DMVs, utility records, private data brokers, and facial recognition software, often without a warrant or any meaningful oversight.

"ICE has built its dragnet surveillance system by crossing legal and ethical lines, leveraging the trust that people place in state agencies and essential service providers, and exploiting the vulnerability of people who volunteer their information to reunite with their families," the report says. "Despite the incredible scope and evident civil rights implications of ICE's surveillance practices, the agency has managed to shroud those practices in near-total secrecy, evading enforcement of even the handful of laws and policies that could be invoked to impose limitations."

The report details how ICE began rapidly expanding its surveillance capabilities in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. Since 2008, ICE has spent $2.8 billion on facial recognition software and other new surveillance technology. Just last week, federal contracting records showed ICE intends to spend $7.2 million on yet more facial recognition tools.

Among the report's major findings: ICE has scanned the driver's license photos roughly a third of adults using facial recognition technology. ICE has access to the driver's license data of 3 in 4 adults, can track the movements of drivers in cities that are home to 3 in 4 adults, and can locate 3 in 4 adults through their utility records.

In 2020, the Washington Post reported that ICE had run facial recognition searches on millions of driver's license photos in Maryland, where undocumented immigrants are allowed to apply for licenses, without approval from the state or courts.

"When undocumented drivers apply for licenses, they place a significant amount of trust in the state that their information will not be used against them," the  Center on Privacy & Technology report says. "Allowing ICE to use driver records for immigration enforcement purposes is a profound betrayal of that trust."

ICE has also evaded states' efforts to cut off its data-mining abilities. For example, the report found that after the state of Washington cut off ICE's access to its driver database, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) searches of a non-state-operated driver database nearly doubled.

Likewise, although the Oregon legislature banned state data disclosures to ICE, the agency can still access the information through two data brokers, Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis Risk Solutions, which the state DMV sold its records to.

The report recommends that Congress, in addition to conducting more aggressive oversight, should prohibit or require a warrant for ICE to access DMV data for immigration enforcement purposes. It also says states should prohibit ICE from using utility records like phone, electricity, and water bills for similar purposes, and states should monitor and audit ICE access to databases.

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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  1. And we're still netting a million illegal aliens every year?

    1. The purpose of ICE surveillance is not to catch illegals, it is to grow federal power.

      If we wanted to reduce the number of illegals in the US, we'd be going after the employers, landlords, banks, etc. that enable them to continue to stay in the US.

      1. whew! good thing achieving all that would never grow federal power! sign me up!

      2. Not to mention better boarder security.

  2. I have a real question for this. We focus on ICE a lot, but if we killed it, would its roles be subsumed by another government agency? I've wondered this for awhile, but particularly after the Abolish ICE stuff awhile back.
    Because I know ICE itself is kind of a shibboleth at this point for a certain type of politic, and I fear that focusing the attention on the specific agency does not aid us in the larger question of executive powers.

    1. ICE should be abolished; instead of hunting down illegals individually, which is like playing whack-a-mole, astronomically expensive, and authoritarian, the federal government should impose stiff penalties (fines and jail) on anybody who aids, or conducts business with, people illegally present in the US.

      1. That would theoretically mean that you would have to carry papers to prove your citizenship or resident status at all times. How else would you know that you weren't aiding or conducting business with illegals without proper identification?

        I'm curious how you think that squares with your right of freely associating if you have to be limited on whom you're allowed to associate with. Or do you simply not care about that?

        1. I care about the right of free association. I also hate that we can't just all live in a great big free world where borders don't really matter and everyone is nice, responsible, and without government interference. Alas, the Unicorn!

      2. Those stiff penalties are long since written into law but the government refuses to enforce the laws.

  3. According to Koch / Reason libertarianism, the only legitimate function of government is to create the conditions under which billionaires — especially our benefactor Charles Koch — can get even richer. The existence of ICE is deeply offensive because it restricts Mr. Koch's access to cost-effective foreign-born labor. (Mexicans are his favorite but, as Fiona's dozen Ukraine-related columns make clear, people fleeing war zones are also desirable.)


    1. fuck those capitalists advocating removing state barriers to choices in a marketplace! America is a collective, dammit!

      1. Get rid of the market choice to enter the country illegally and leech off the welfare system.

  4. I only hope that system is used on legal residents and not on undocumented immigrants.

    1. ...of course. Illegal aliens have rights unavailable to actual citizens.

    2. Yeah, that's what hateful people like you actually hope: that the US government hurts Americans and gives handouts to foreigners. Instead of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, you want government of elites, by thugs, and for the benefit of illegals and plutocrats.

    3. it would be humorous and fitting and, considering how badly the federal government fucks up most tasks given it, it's practically guaranteed to work out that way

  5. Those bastard Republicans allowing this in order to Hassel immigrant! There is no way a program like this would have been allowed under Obama!

    1. Love your sarcasm.

    2. Good grief how much space does Obama take up in your head? Obama deported more illegals than any PRez in history and on a side note prosecuted more whistle blowers.

  6. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has quietly built up a massive "dragnet surveillance system" that allows it to snoop without a warrant on "nearly anyone, seemingly at any time," a new study reports.

    The solution to this problem is simple: universal adoption of REAL ID in employment, banking, schooling, transportation, voting, healthcare, taxation, etc., with tough penalties for any business and institution that provides service without proof of legal presence. If you're not legally present in the US, you don't get any service.

    It is the refusal of so-called "civil libertarians" and "privacy advocates" to require physical proof of legal presence that creates the need for privacy-invading surveillance and enforcement.

    1. Oh wow, you really do believe that everyone should carry papers at all times. My question above was meant to be more rhetorical.


      1. Can't drive without a drivers license, can't vote in many states without an ID, can't work (legally) without a SSN, can't rent a hotel room without an ID, can't rent a car without ID, can't buy ciggs, beer, or weed without ID, can't travel without a passport.
        The thought of having a National ID is stomach turning to us liberty lovers but requiring a National ID to show citizenship status in order to get social services or a job may be a step in the right direction to limiting illegal immigration and actually eliminate the need for draconian border security tactics.

  7. Every federal official - including ICE officials - swear a supreme loyalty oath to NOT violate the 1st and 4th Amendment rights of any “person” (including non-citizens).

    They take no oath to protect & serve, only to uphold the U.S. Constitution, under Title 5 US Code 3331. When ICE officials sometimes get criminally prosecuted, it’s for being disloyal to their Oath of Office.

    ICE supervisors apparently aren’t teaching proper loyalty to their employees. Good intentions may not keep ICE officials from avoiding criminal prosecution.

  8. I have to question. If ICE has such an effective and widespread system, how are they so ineffective? Why are there tens of millions of people present in America illegally?

    1. Oh man, that is the comment of the day! Like any problem, it cannot be solved because what would happen to ICE and all that funding and those jobs?

  9. It would be silly to not think that the whole of government does this stuff.

  10. We already know this! There should be statues of Edward Snowden all over this country!..and Julian Assange for that matter

  11. No one could have predicted just after 9-11 that new agencies such as the DHS would become a danger to American civil liberties. And that both political parties would end up embracing them for their own ends, and that they’d become impossible to get rid of. Nobody.

  12. Well, developing something like that can be actually useful, but it shouldn't violate human rights. When people work with software development companies for the digital enterprise, they should think about it in the first place, and it would be better for such companies to refuse offers like this one, but for some reason, as long as it helps federal power grow, it's okay.

  13. Honestly, I'd like to join here because it seems close talk to me. Besides, I want to say that all security is necessary for every user. Therefore, you might also try to know how to change ip address in order to protect your data. I think this information will be relevant to you according to the current state of the Social Web.

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