Two Democratic senators are urging the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) component to end its use of facial recognition technology and purchases from data brokers to carry out deportation proceedings.

Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass. ­­– an architect of early internet privacy laws – and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a September 12 letter to the agency they are concerned about ICE’s ability to create a “dragnet surveillance system” that has enabled the Federal agency to obtain “detailed information” about the vast majority of people living in the U.S.

Moreover, the senators said, that effort has been “shrouded in secrecy.”

The letter addressed to ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson came in response to a report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology that was released in May. The report stems from hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests and features a comprehensive review of ICE’s contracting and procurement records over a two-year period.

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

In their letter, the senators highlighted four of the investigation’s key findings:

  • ICE has used facial recognition technology on the driver’s license photographs of 32 percent of all adults in the U.S. and has access to the driver’s license data of 74 percent;
  • When 74 percent of adults in the U.S. connected the gas, electricity, phone, or internet services in a new home, ICE was able to automatically learn their new address;
  • ICE has tapped vast databases held by private data brokers, as well as state and local bureaucracies historically uninvolved with law enforcement, giving ICE access to expansive and frequently updated information streams, including Department of Motor Vehicle records, utility customer information, call records, child welfare records, credit headers, employment records, geolocation information, health care records, housing records, and social media posts; and
  • Between 2008 and 2021, ICE spent $2.8 billion on new surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives.

The senators emphasized their “serious concerns” about how ICE surveils the public ­– remaining secretive and largely avoiding key accountability systems.

Markey and Wyden gave ICE three weeks to respond to 13 questions detailing more transparent information on the agency’s facial recognition technologies, their relationship with data brokers, and how they use cell phone location data.

In February, Markey signed a letter urging five Federal agencies to stop using facial recognition technologies. Wyden was also advocating to prohibit facial recognition technologies in public housing last summer. Both Democratic senators introduced the Protecting Data at the Border Act last fall, which is another way they’re aiming to uphold protections for privacy in the U.S.

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.