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Thomson Reuters to review contracts, including data used to track immigrants

Thomson Reuters is to align with UN principles on business and human rights and conduct an independent, company-wide human rights impact assessment of its products and services, including contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

An announcement in the company’s latest notice to shareholders comes after years of criticism over data brokerage services provided by the company to ICE, which uses a Thomson Reuters service known as CLEAR to track, arrest and deport undocumented migrants in the United States.


Thomson Reuters has more than $100 million worth of contracts with ICE and provides not only raw data gathered from cellphone records, licence plate recognition and other publicly available information but also in-house analysts and customised systems to support data use in ICE operations.


Friday's announcement of the impact assessment was greeted with cautious optimism by groups that have led a campaign against the contracts..


“We’ll be watching the outcome of this assessment closely,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign director at Mijente, a grassroots Latino organisation. “Our undocumented community members deserve the right to feel safe and should not have to fear that their data will be shared to harm them based on their immigration status.”


The British Columbia General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), a Canadian union that owns Thomson Reuters shares through its general and defence investment funds, has campaigned for years against the ICE contracts.


Over the last three years it submitted shareholder proposals highlighting privacy and human rights violations committed by ICE and suggesting that Thomson Reuters adopt the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) as a framework for mitigating human rights risk.


In an appendix to the shareholder notice, Thomson Reuters included the text of the most recently submitted proposal from the union, noting that the proposal was voluntarily withdrawn from consideration at the annual meeting after commitments made to the union by the media company.


“This is why our union does capital stewardship the way we do - to force corporations to make progressive changes on the issues that matter to working people,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith in a statement. “Thomson Reuters would not have taken this action without sustained pressure from BCGEU over the past three years, and ongoing work by Mijente and the NoTechForIce campaign.”


BCGEU’s activism towards Thomson Reuters was spurred by longstanding concern over the CLEAR database, which is able to consolidate data pulled from public records across numerous external databases, such as motor vehicle and arrest records, health care provider information, cellphone records, and more.


Although the forthcoming impact assessment will not contain binding resolutions, a commitment to publicly sharing the results of the assessment - expected for some time in the second half of 2022 - is seen as signalling Thomson Reuters willingness for dialogue and change.


“We eagerly await the results of the impact assessment this summer - and expect other data brokers are going to receive similar kinds of pressure from responsible investors in the future,” said Smith. “This is just the beginning.”


Thomson Reuters said it has no intention of severing ties with US government agencies that have paid to search its database. Company spokeswoman Sarah Schmidt told The Washington Post that the company is reviewing all of its businesses, not just CLEAR, as part of a “human rights salience assessment” launched separately from the union’s work.


The company “continues to be engaged by DHS-ICE to support the agency’s criminal investigations and priority cases such as those involving threats to national security and/or public safety,” Schmidt said. “Thomson Reuters takes its role as a responsible corporate citizen seriously and has long believed that all companies should consider potential human rights risks related to their operations.”


A spokesperson for the union, when offered the company’s response, told The Post that the union was “ensured” that the investigation would include ICE contracts.


And Smith said in a statement: “Thomson Reuters drawing conclusions about these contracts before the human rights impact assessment has been completed undermines our confidence in the process, and makes it seem prejudged. If this is just a check-the-box exercise on the part of Thomson Reuters, clearly our work is not over. We will continue our investor engagement efforts until Thomson Reuters shows a real commitment to adequately assess and mitigate human rights risk.”


The company has said its databases are used by authorised police, government and corporate agencies to “catch bad actors, keep communities safe and investigate crimes, such as money laundering, human trafficking, and drug and weapons smuggling.” ■

The Washington Post