Federal authorities are rapidly expanding the use of little-known smartphone technology to monitor hundreds of thousands of people facing deportation across the country. More than 5,000 people in San Diego and Imperial counties are now being monitored under the program, up from about two dozen less than three years ago.
Use of SmartLINK by immigration authorities, which began in 2018, has exploded over the past year, alongside concerns that the program is surreptitiously collecting, sharing and monetizing data about its users.
SmartLINK — one of three alternative programs the Biden administration has looked into as it promises to reduce populations in detention centers — uses biometric information such as facial comparison and GPS to track individuals under the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Federal authorities have touted SmartLINK as a more humane and cost-effective alternative to traditional detention, allowing individuals to await trial at home rather than at one of ICE’s detention centers.
According to an ICE spokesperson, the benefits of SmartLINK include increasing court appearance rates and compliance with release conditions by providing reminders for court dates, immigrant resources and a direct messaging between immigrants, agents and case specialists.
But critics say SmartLINK and other programs have had the effect of expanding ICE’s reach in the lives of immigrants, including those who would typically be released into the community without supervision to await their immigration hearings.
“What is clear in our communities and over the past two years is that these are not alternatives to detention,” said Cinthya Rodriguez, organizer of Mijente, which advocates for “Latinx rights, justice and radical change”. Latinx is a gender-neutral term describing people of Latin American descent.
“They are an extension of the violent and massive detention system,” Rodriguez said.
Immigration advocates are sounding the alarm over what they say is a growing ‘e-carceration’ system – fueled by surveillance technology used in alternative detention programs – that could quietly collect sensitive information about more than 200,000 people and their personal networks across the country, including US citizens and legal residents.
Mijente, along with two other immigration and incarceration reform advocacy groups, filed a lawsuit against ICE in April, demanding that the agency reveal what data SmartLINK collects from the user. , with whom the data might be shared and the extent of monitoring carried out through the app. .
Congressional Democrats have rejected against the programcalling for a reduction in its use and diverting funds to community supervision programs, where nonprofit organizations step in to provide social services and legal referral.
Privacy experts say most concerning is what the company and ICE have yet to disclose about what they collect and share.
“There’s so much we don’t know, and three years into this program, the fact that we don’t know this information is frankly astounding,” said Saira Hussain, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties society. non-profit.
“We understand what these traditional forms of incarceration and e-incarceration entail, but this is kind of a new horizon. It’s a new frontier,” Hussain said.
Explosive Growth of SmartLINK Monitoring
Immigrants enrolled in SmartLINK log into the app from their own smartphone or a locked cellphone, called BI Mobile, provided by ICE that has no other capabilities.
Embedded BI, the company that created SmartLINK, engages its employees with ICE to run the program as case specialists. According to BI Incorporated’s website, people tracked under SmartLINK can send messages and video calls to their case specialist, upload documents, search for community resources and view upcoming court dates.
The app uses “facial comparison technology” and “allows officers to confirm compliance with location, curfew and travel restrictions,” according to BI Incorporated. The level of supervision assigned to users is decided by ICE officers based on immigration status, criminal history, compliance history and other personal factors.
A SmartLINK user who spoke to new source mentioned he has regular check-ins once a week where he sends a picture of himself through the app. He is also required to check in at unscheduled times whenever the device alerts him, he said.
He requested anonymity because his case is ongoing and he fears federal agents may retaliate against him or his family for speaking to the media.
He said he was required to stay within a 77-mile radius as part of his SmartLINK program. As a result, he had to refuse construction work that takes place outside the area, making it more difficult to pay for the legal services he had to seek for his defense.
When ICE signed him up for SmartLINK, they told him they could see wherever he went, he said.
“It just scares me that at any moment I could be arrested again,” he said.
The number of people using the SmartLINK to register with ICE has exploded rapidly, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC.
Last April, approximately 1,200 people used SmartLINK in San Diego and Imperial counties to register with ICE. Last April, that number topped 5,000 – quadrupling in a year
A man facing eviction prepares to send a photo via the SmartLINK mobile app to his home in San Diego on May 19, 2022.
Federal funding for the program is also up. Over the past decade, ICE’s budget for alternatives to detention has grown from $6.5 million in fiscal year 2012 to $440 million in the current fiscal year.
The Biden administration has asked for a 17% increase in the 2022 budget this year to expand ISAP “instead of a sustained reliance on detention.”
ICE’s last five-year contract with BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of the private prison company Geo Group, exceeded $2.2 billion to operate the SmartLink program, as well as ankle bracelet monitoring and telephone reporting.
Critics have also accused ICE of forcing people to use SmartLINK who would not normally be subject to surveillance after being released.
An ICE spokesperson said alternatives to detention such as SmartLINK “may be appropriate” for people released on their own recognizance, supervision orders, parole or bail.
Collecting data, sharing growing concerns
Immigrant and privacy advocates foresee alarming consequences in ICE’s expanding surveillance network. They say ICE uses SmartLINK to collect sensitive data about individuals and their networks, without providing details on the exact information collected and with whom it might be shared.
ICE and BI Incorporated provided inconsistent information about when a user’s location data is tracked, according to a March report in The Guardianwhich was based on interviews with former BI employees, program users and company policies.
“It really leads to a lack of trust in the app and a lack of trust that it will be used responsibly,” said Hussain, the attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The company also encouraged data sharing between government agencies and collected large amounts of data on thousands of users through the app, The Guardian reported.
However, some of the explanations are vague.
For example, BI Incorporated may disclose personal information to its “subsidiaries or affiliates” or simply “if we believe disclosure is necessary or appropriate to protect the rights, property, or safety of BI Incorporated, our customers, or others.” ‘others”.
It may also disclose data “to contractors, service providers and other third parties we use to support our services”. The company said these third parties are required to keep this information confidential.
For California users specifically, BI Incorporated’s policy states that the app has “collected or received” education, employment, financial, and health information.
Users provide this information directly to the company or “automatically when you use the app”, and the information is used to verify identity or to “provide services related to your community supervision”.
BI Incorporated returned requests for comment from new source at ICE.
ICE did not respond to specific questions from new source regarding SmartLINK’s collection or sharing of data, but said the agency is “committed to protecting the privacy rights, as well as the civil rights and liberties of all participants in the Alternatives to Detention program.”
As the federal government expands its use of smart technology, promoting it as safer and more effective than physical detention, advocates see privacy concerns extending beyond the people using the technology.
“There is a misconception that the use of smart tools or tools that use technology for law enforcement purposes are not as intrusive as some of the physical tools,” said Pedro Rios, director of a migrant rights program at the American Friends Service Committee.
Often, border surveillance technology captures information about broader communities, not just immigrants under ICE surveillance.
A recently published study from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology found that ICE operates an extensive and far-reaching surveillance network capable of tracking three out of four adults in the United States.
Julie Mao, deputy director of Just Futures Law, one of the groups that sued ICE over SmartLINK data, said that in a border county like San Diego, “immigrant or non-immigrant” communities have already done subject to monitoring.
“We’re thinking right now, ‘Why are immigrants complaining about this version of surveillance? They should just be happy not to be detained or deported.
But the reality is, she added, that the tools used to monitor immigrants today “can be multiplied, transferred and reused for other communities and other reasons.”