ICE used Thomson Reuters database to pursue immigration violations
Saturday 27 February 2021
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers tapped a Thomson Reuters database containing hundreds of millions of utility records while pursuing immigration violations, according to public documents uncovered by university researchers and shared with The Washington Post.
ICE’s use of the private database is another example of how government agencies have exploited commercial sources to access information they are not authorised to compile on their own, the Post said. It also highlights how real-world surveillance efforts are being fuelled by information people may never have expected would land in the hands of law enforcement.
The database, CLEAR, includes more than 400 million names, addresses and service records from more than 80 utility companies covering all the staples of modern life, including water, gas and electricity, and phone, Internet and cable TV.
CLEAR documents say the database includes billions of records related to people’s employment, housing, credit reports, criminal histories and vehicle registrations from utility companies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. It is updated daily, meaning even a recent move or new utility sign-up could be reflected in an individual search.
Thomson Reuters, the owner of Reuters News, sells “legal investigation software solution” subscriptions to a broad range of companies and public agencies. The company has said in documents that its utility data comes from the credit-reporting giant Equifax.
The Post said Thomson Reuters has not provided a full client list for CLEAR, but the company has said in marketing documents that the system has been used by police in Detroit, a credit union in California and a fraud investigator in the Midwest. Federal purchasing records show that the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defence are among the federal agencies with ongoing contracts for use of CLEAR data.
On Friday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent letters to the chief executives of Thomson Reuters and Equifax seeking documents and other information on how ICE has used the utility data in recent years.
“We are concerned that Thomson Reuters’ commercialization of personal and use data of utility customers and sale of broad access to ICE is an abuse of privacy, and that ICE’s use of this database is an abuse of power,” said the letters.
Thomson Reuters directed requests for comment to ICE, which declined to comment on its “investigative techniques, tactics or tools,” citing “law-enforcement sensitivities,” the Post said. Equifax did not respond to requests for comment.
ICE has not shared how often it has used utility records to track people, saying such details should be confidential because they outline protected investigative techniques.
In a separate letter to a Texas sheriff’s office in 2019, also obtained by Georgetown Law researchers and shared with the Post, a Thomson Reuters specialist said CLEAR’s utility data offered investigators a powerful way to find “people who are not easily traceable via traditional sources.”
Nina Wang, a policy associate at the Georgetown centre, said the database offered ICE officers a way to pursue undocumented immigrants who may have tried to stay off the grid by avoiding activities as getting driver’s licences but could not live without paying to keep the lights on at home.
“There needs to be a line drawn in defence of people’s basic dignity. And when the fear of deportation could endanger their ability to access these basic services, that line is being crossed,” she said. “It’s a massive betrayal of people’s trust. … When you sign up for electricity, you don’t expect them to send immigration agents to your front door.”
ICE has a $21 million contract with a Thomson Reuters subsidiary for the data, though the subscription is scheduled to expire on Sunday. ■
- The Washington Post