Sanctuary city policies were meant to protect immigrants, by limiting how much local law enforcement can cooperate with and supply information to federal authorities to enforce immigration law. But as ongoing technological integration deepens ties between tech firms and government agencies, immigrants and asylum seekers are increasingly being pushed to the digital periphery. That’s left advocates arguing that cities adopt low-tech solutions and policies to minimize data collection – and protect their most vulnerable residents.
The constant flow of data between cities and tech conglomerates has contributed to the unprecedented expansion of the U.S. border through an invisible layer of surveillance. From Union City, California to New York City, privacy laws and sanctuary city policies are being disregarded by local governments as they provide sensitive personal information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Sam Van Doran, development director and immigrant justice advocate at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, says there is effectively little to no difference between so-called sanctuary cities and anti-immigrant cities. The notion that there are two types of cities – those where law enforcement openly colludes with ICE to arrest immigrants, and those where immigrants are protected – is fundamentally untrue, she argues.
“The reality is that many ‘sanctuary cities’ have failed to prevent collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration agents, leading to unnecessary detentions, deportations, and family separations,” Van Doran says. “Thanks to ‘fusion’ centers and information-sharing agreements, the everyday surveillance of American cities puts migrants and refugees at greater risk.”
The fundamental issue around ubiquitous technological solutions – from smart streetlights to facial recognition cameras – is the type of data they collect and with whom this information is shared. Even cities with relatively comprehensive sanctuary policies designed to limit the level of cooperation with agencies, including ICE, proves to be ineffective if these federal enforcement organizations can obtain similar information from technology companies.
A recent study investigating ICE surveillance activities published by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center reported that the agency operates an immense digital surveillance system. The information ICE collects has been taken from a wide range of areas, including social media platforms, data brokers, utility firms and local governments. It contains driver movement data of three-quarters of the U.S. population, as well as data obtained from utility records of 75% of U.S. adults.
Nina Wang, a policy associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center and one of the report authors, points to the “tremendous capacity” ICE has built up over the past decade to surveil immigrants.
“Without adequate privacy safeguards in place, the technologies that cities deploy can end up becoming surveillance tools used by immigration enforcement,” says Wang. “In order to protect their residents, cities need to adopt a policy of data minimization for any technology it deploys, making sure to collect only the data that is strictly necessary to provide services and storing that data for a minimum time necessary.”
Laws should also be passed that ensure this data is not used for immigration enforcement purposes, she adds.
Advocacy organizations are attempting to drive forward the argument that technology doesn’t need to be used as part of every city project, simply because it can be deployed.
For Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of STOP, New York City’s IDNYC identification card is a successful example of how a low-tech concept is able to offer an identity solution for New Yorkers, including immigrants, that protects their privacy. Available to all people aged 10 or older who live in NYC, regardless of immigration status, the IDNYC is a free government-issued photo ID card that can be used to access a range of City services.
“The [IDNYC] card itself is completely analog, and officials safeguard undocumented New Yorkers by purging applicant’s information at the time they apply,” explains Cahn. However, as is the nature of many city schemes, technology can be added at any point in the future.
“We continue to fear that city officials will undermine New Yorkers’ privacy and our sanctuary promises by adding electronic payment chips to the card, transforming a privacy shield into a tracking device,” Cahn says. “If such a chip is added to IDNYC, [this will] once again put refugees and asylum seekers at risk with the technology that’s supposed to help them.”
While the use of “smart technologies” and data collection is rapidly increasing across the country, Wang says, residents and lawmakers alike are often unaware of the expanse and sheer volume of data ICE collects.
A shift from physical GPS-based ankle monitors to electronic monitoring programs, for example, is well underway: Figures from ICE show that while GPS ankle monitors are used by less than 23,000 immigrants, more than 240,000 immigrants are being monitored using so-called electronic Alternatives to Detention.
Smartphone app SmartLINK, introduced as part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program under the Trump administration, is by far the largest program of its type in use. Close to 187,000 immigrants required to use the app, which is owned by a subsidiary of major private prison corporation GEO Group, are tracked through GPS and must submit to facial and voice recognition.
Though it’s billed as a more humane alternative to other ICE detention options such as ankle monitors, immigration activists and lawmakers are raising concerns both around what data is collected by SmartLINK and with whom it is shared. Reporting from The Guardian finds that ICE likely harvests all data entered into the app, including the images of users that are required to be uploaded and copies of messages sent over the app’s messaging feature.
But it’s not just data directly collected by ICE. Activists and journalists have uncovered countless agreements between ICE, data brokers and tech firms, such as media conglomerate Thomson Reuters.
“It’s the right of our communities to understand how our personal information is being collected, sold to data brokers and then shared with ICE,” says Cinthya Rodriguez, a national organizer at Mijente, a grassroots Latinx nonprofit organization. “We’re talking about our personal data that’s collected from public and commercial sources, like phone, electricity and public property records. All of that is repackaged and put on a silver platter for ICE.”
Mijente has been leading the drive to stop powerful firms like Thomson Reuters from contracting with ICE. After a three-year campaign against Thomson Reuters’ involvement with ICE, the corporation agreed in April to assess the human rights impact of its contracts, including those with ICE.
“We’re up against a giant octopus with many tentacles – data and technology that’s infringing upon immigrant lives and also all of our communities,” Rodriguez says. “We need to build up and become just as large and fight at all levels, because this isn’t something that just affects immigrant communities – it affects all of us.”
Digital cities of refuge?
Myria Georgiou, Professor of Media and Communications at London School of Economics and Principal Investigator of the Digital City of Refuge project, believes that digital infrastructures have the potential to support refugees’ new life in cities and help immigrants do everything from looking for jobs to finding safe, affordable accommodation.
“Digital infrastructures support opportunities for voice and claim-making among refugee and migrant groups that might be silenced in mainstream media and politics,” says Georgiou. “While all these digital opportunities do not necessarily translate into specific outcomes, there is no doubt that they have expanded spaces of voice, solidarity and participation in the city.”
One of the most challenging dimensions of digital technologies is that they both create opportunities and risks for migrants and refugees. As smart city technologies continue to evolve and become essential parts of everyday life for more people, Georgiou believes accountability and transparency needs to be placed at the forefront, with refugee and migrant communities being consulted on the potential introduction of new technologies that could impact them.
“City governments need to move beyond conceptions of digital technologies as a by definition force for good,” she says. “Technological change works positively only when its applications are on a par with democratic processes that protect and advance inclusion of all people in the city.”
There is no quick fix that can be implemented to safeguard the rights of migrants and refugees as they interact with technologies in the city, experts say. As Georgiou points out, it’s not possible for migrants to simply stop using vital digital tools that can be used by government agencies to surveil users, as these same technologies are used to access information on everything from housing to employment opportunities.
“More and more governments expect everyone to seek such opportunities online, thus, both expanding opportunities for access to information but also forcing migrants and refugees to contribute to data profiles that can be used in different ways and beyond their control,” Georgiou says.
Finbarr Toesland is a journalist who has written for publications including VICE, Reuters, the Telegraph, BBC, NBC News and Euronews.