Senators petition ICE to curtail ‘Orwellian’ use of facial recognition, surveillance technology

Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Ron Wyden, D-OR. call on the agency to stop purchasing private information from data brokers.
A sign outside a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office in the Northlake area of DeKalb County, Georgia. (Image credit: Gulbenk / Wikimedia Commons).

Democratic Senators on Tuesday called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stop using facial recognition and surveillance technology and to end the purchase of private information from data brokers.

In a letter sent to agency Acting Director Tae Johnson, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Ron Wyden, D-OR., cited a Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology investigation into the use of data for immigration enforcement. The study found that ICE in the past decade has gained access to driver’s license and home address information for three-quarters of American citizens.

The missive is the latest instance of Congress seeking to rein in the purchase of Americans’ personal data by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Last month, House leaders sent a letter to U.S. law enforcement agencies probing their purchases of private data sets to circumvent warrant requirements.

“According to a recent report, ICE has used facial recognition and other technologies, and purchased information from data brokers, to construct a ‘dragnet surveillance system’ that helps ICE carry out deportation proceedings,” the Senators wrote in the letter.


“Much of this effort, which has enabled ICE to obtain detailed information about the vast majority of people living in the United States, has been shrouded in secrecy,” the Senators added.

The Georgetown investigation was conducted by submitting hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests and by carrying out a comprehensive review of ICE’s contracting and procurement records.

The lawmakers’ missive comes after documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year revealed that partnership with one data broker provided ICE with access to location data from about 250 million mobile devices. In total, the partnership gave the agency access to more than 15 billion location points per day. 

Those ACLU documents in July showed how millions of taxpayer dollars were spent by the Department of Homeland Security and ICE to buy access to cell phone location information being aggregated and sold by two controversial and opaque government contracted data brokers, Venntel and Babel Street.

“This surveillance network has exploited privacy-protection gaps and has enormous civil rights implications,” the Senators wrote in their letter to Johnson. “ICE should immediately shut down its Orwellian data-gathering efforts that indiscriminately collect far too much data on far too many individuals.”


‘The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act,’ introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY., in April 2021 sought to force the police and certain federal agencies to obtain a court order before purchasing people’s personal information through third-party data brokers.

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