U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) employs surveillance tools against migrants, immigrants, and immigrant communities to carry out its investigative and immigration enforcement objectives. These tools often collect personal and sensitive data from smartphones, as well as data available online, including on social media sites. Much of this data is information that individuals never consented to disclose to ICE, and at times the data includes information ICE cannot collect directly without a warrant.
Among these surveillance tools is SocialNet, an investigative software sold by ShadowDragon. Through SocialNet, ICE can create detailed profiles of its targets—including their locations, lifestyles, and personal relationships. SocialNet gathers its data from websites such as social media platforms. ICE has spent almost $900,000 on contracts for SocialNet since 2020.
Another tool is Babel Street’s Locate X, a software tool that uses location data from mobile applications. Using Locate X, ICE can monitor and identify cell phones that cross through specific locations, learn where those cell phones had been before crossing through those locations, and learn where those cell phones travel after. Since 2018, ICE has entered contracts totaling approximately $2.5 million for Babel Street software.
EPIC’s FOIA Requests
On December 3, 2021, EPIC submitted two Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests to ICE seeking records about ICE’s use of surveillance tools that compile location and social media data. One FOIA request sought information about ICE’s communications and contracts with ShadowDragon, the firm that produces the social media surveillance tool SocialNet. The second FOIA request sought information about ICE’s communications and contracts with Babel Street, including ICE’s purchase of Babel Street’s Locate X software, as well as other communications and documents concerning location data.
EPIC sought expedited processing for both FOIA requests because of the urgency to inform the public about ICE’s use of location data and social media surveillance tools.
ICE was obligated under the FOIA statute to respond to EPIC’s request for expedited processing within 10 days. The FOIA statute also imposes on ICE a 20-day deadline to notify EPIC of its decision as to whether to comply with EPIC’s FOIA requests. ICE met neither of these requirements. The agency never acknowledged nor responded to EPIC’s FOIA requests, nor did the agency respond to EPIC’s numerous outreach attempts.
On March 18, 2022, 105 days after submitting the two FOIA requests, EPIC filed a lawsuit against ICE to compel disclosure of the records requested.
ICE’s use of these surveillance tools is a threat to privacy and liberty. The personal information individuals share on their social media sites should not be obtained or used by ICE to carry out deportations. Nor should ICE be able to purchase mobile application data to track individuals’ locations without their knowledge. The legality of ICE’s access to mobile location data is also dubious. In 2018 the Supreme Court held that the government could not obtain data collected by cell site towers to track phone locations without a warrant. Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018). Whether ICE can legally collect virtually the same information by other means—i.e., indirectly by purchasing mobile location data from firms like Babel Street—is questionable under Fourth Amendment law.
EPIC believes the public should understand ICE’s relationships and dealings with firms that sell these surveillance tools, the types and amount of data ICE has access to, how ICE is using that data, what privacy protections ICE has implemented to protect the rights of the public, and whether ICE is complying with the Constitution and federal law when carrying out these investigations.