Who's Behind ICE?
The Tech and Data Companies Fueling Deportations
Tech is transforming immigration enforcement. As advocates have known for some time, the immigration and criminal justice systems have powerful allies in Silicon Valley and Congress, with technology companies playing an increasingly central role in facilitating the expansion and acceleration of arrests, detentions, and deportations. What is less known outside of Silicon Valley is the long history of the technology industry’s “revolving door” relationship with federal agencies, how the technology industry and its products and services are now actually circumventing city- and state-level protections for vulnerable communities, and what we can do to expose and hold these actors accountable.
Mijente, the National Immigration Project, and the Immigrant Defense Project — immigration and Latinx-focused organizations working at the intersection of new technology, policing, and immigration — commissioned Empower LLC to undertake critical research about the multi-layered technology infrastructure behind the accelerated and expansive immigration enforcement we’re seeing today, and the companies that are behind it. The report opens a window into the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) plans for immigration policing through a scheme of tech and database policing, the mass scale and scope of the tech-based systems, the contracts that support it, and the connections between Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley. It surveys and investigates the key contracts that technology companies have with DHS, particularly within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and their success in signing new contracts through intensive and expensive lobbying.
Targeting Immigrants is Big Business
Immigrant communities and overpoliced communities now face unprecedented levels of surveillance, detention and deportation under President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, DHS, and its sub-agency ICE. Tech innovation and infrastructure makes this possible, allowing immigration enforcement to rely on policing through huge databases, computer programs, tech employees analyzing big data, and shareable cloud-based storage. These systems accumulate unprecedented amounts of personal and private information and enable the rapid expansion of information-sharing capabilities among city, state, and regional law enforcement agencies, as well as some foreign governments, for the purpose of finding, deporting, and detaining immigrants.
Immigration enforcement and detention is now big business for Silicon Valley. ICE, DHS, and many other law enforcement agencies spend billions of taxpayer dollars on procuring and maintaining these new systems. Currently, about 10 percent of the DHS $44 billion budget is dedicated to data management. A handful of huge corporations, like Amazon Web Services and Palantir, have built a “revolving door” to develop and entrench Silicon Valley’s role in fueling the incarceration and deportation regime. Unchecked, these tech companies will continue to do the government’s bidding in developing the systems that target and punish en masse those it deems “undesirable” — immigrants, people of color, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, activists, and others. It is deeply troubling that at the same time these corporations characterize these services and products as business ventures that are free from bias, racism, profiling, and abuse, while being highly profitable.
Trump and Sessions are clear about their agenda. They are going after immigrants, naturalized and undocumented alike, as part of a larger white supremacist project. Yet, as resistance to this administration continues to grow, we must all ask ourselves where we stand and ask others what side they are on. Dismantling the lucrative relationship between tech and ICE must be a key component of the movement to push back against the Trump-Sessions agenda, to #AbolishICE, and to defend our families and communities.
ICE cannot develop or operate its massive information systems without the technology industry and its products and services. And as the Trump administration increases the mandate and secures more resources for the agency, ICE has been soliciting companies to staff up, service, and resource its needs to manage the huge amounts of information it collects or buys on immigrants and the people connected with them. The massive government cash infusion has even birthed new companies focused specifically on getting ICE contracts and expanded monopoly powers of major corporations in Silicon Valley, such as Palantir and Amazon. And elected officials are expanding that footprint by proposing legislation that will facilitate ICE contracting and expand biometric collection.
ICE is preparing to use tech for mass deportation at an unprecedented scale that could make “Sanctuary” city- and state-level protections obsolete. As the report reveals, ICE wants to organize mass personal information it buys from private vendors, such as license plate information; collect intimate biometric information in mass quantities, such as fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition software; buy the “cloud” space to store the data and hire people to analyze the mass data information – all for surveilling, arresting and deporting immigrants. These programs have enormous implications for protective policies in cities and states by making the separation of information impossible, granting full access to Trump’s federal police force.
The report highlights Amazon and Palantir as two companies that are at the forefront of these developments, providing the collection, storage, and management of the vast amount of information required by ICE to increase its reach to the levels promised by the Trump administration. Both companies have enabled DHS to apply new technologies and expand its data-sharing capabilities to undermine and get around any local protections that were hard-fought and won by immigrant rights organizers. This interoperability has effectively expanded the reach of immigration enforcement by rendering detentions and deportations more likely to occur. Through intense lobbying of policymakers and law enforcement officials, Amazon and Palantir have secured a role as the backbone for the federal government’s immigration and law enforcement dragnet, allowing them to pursue multi-billion dollar government contracts in various agencies at every level of law enforcement and defense.
Big Data Drives Deportation Raids
Palantir is building ICE’s case management software — tech that allows immigration agents to scour regional, local, state, and federal databases across the country, build profiles of immigrants and their friends and family based on both private and public information, and use those profiles to surveil, track, and ultimately deport immigrants. Their technical services have led to:
- Dangerous acceleration of surveillance technology at the hands of police and prosecutors to target and build profiles of people — an infrastructure that also fuels discriminatory policing practices targeting people of color;
- Increased mining and accumulation of data from a myriad of sources, including utility bills, DMV records, business and property data, healthcare provider information, live cell phone records, biometric databases, and social media accounts; and
- Unprecedented data sharing between every level of law enforcement that undermines Sanctuary City policies.
Sanctuary cities have and will struggle to fully protect their immigrant communities, because local law enforcement departments use the same Palantir-created data systems as ICE. That means that every time local law enforcement uses their systems, they are, in effect, feeding information that ICE can use to conduct raids. Both Palantir’s Integrated Case Management (ICM) and FALCON Search and Analysis (FALCON-SA) systems ensure these capabilities, allowing for more pinpointed enforcement actions. Local police can easily access federal data on particular individuals and help build national profiles of individuals that are then used by ICE. Federal immigration agents can even access local police information, like license plate data, through shared systems even when local jurisdictions have chosen not to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
At the same time, hundreds of small to mid-sized corporations are competing to build information-sharing platform and software programs for ICE that operate like these models. Dev Technology, a Maryland-based company earning millions from ICE and Customs and Border Patrol, is building biometric tracking programs for ICE for use in Mexico – ostensibly for use against all migrants traveling in Mexico. Forensic Logic, the maker of COPLINK, a program used by over 5,100 law enforcement agencies across the country and hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), was designed to be compatible with federal immigration databases. COPLINK contains diverse information on individuals, organizations, and vehicles, and will allow ICE unprecedented access to information about employers, “associates,” and hangout spots.
Amazon at the Top of the "Cloud Industrial Complex"
Amazon has moved from being the one-stop shop for consumers of every kind to the biggest broker of cloud storage space on the planet, through Amazon Web Services. AWS is the primary cloud space where these data-sharing systems live. AWS serves as the key contractor in DHS’ migration of the agency’s $6.8 billion information technology (IT) portfolio to the cloud. Amazon, now the wealthiest company on the planet, has more federal authorizations to maintain government data from a variety of government agencies than any other tech company — 204 authorizations, compared to Microsoft’s 150, Salesforce’s 31, and Google’s 27. It has made wide use of these authorizations, serving as DHS’s database for immigration case management systems and biometric data for 230 million unique identities — mostly fingerprint records, alongside 36.5 million face records and 2.8 million irises.
The cloud plays a critical role in the DHS immigration enforcement system. Most key data systems supporting immigration enforcement at DHS are either hosted on commercial cloud providers or being migrated to them. This facilitates massive info-sharing with local, state, and other federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the bilateral info-sharing agreements with countries such as Mexico. The government’s move towards cloud services has been the result of the “cloud industrial complex”— a public-private partnership among industry lobbyists, tech executives, key federal legislators, and tech executives-turned-government officials.
DHS emerged as a potential treasure trove for Silicon Valley cloud providers in late 2010, when then-Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra instituted a “Cloud First” policy. The policy encouraged the private contracting of $20 billion in cloud services across the federal government and projected DHS, specifically, as the largest potential client for cloud service acquisition, at over $2.4 billion.
The federal government’s “Cloud First” policy was an important step in constructing what has become a “revolving door” for cloud service providers at the highest levels of government. Congress members involved in a public-private partnership that helped codify the Federal CIO’s power in IT acquisition (a role filled by former or future tech executives) have received over $250,000 in contributions from Amazon and other tech companies that then gained these cloud computing contracts.
Within the next couple of years, the entirety of DHS’s IT portfolio — full of personally-identifiable data — will live on the cloud. DHS has already granted multi-million dollar cloud contracts to Adobe, Amazon, IBM, Oracle, Salesforce, Zoom, and other Silicon Valley companies. Amazon will likely continue to be the primary provider, which means it is the ultimate keeper of the data that enables detentions and deportations.
We commissioned this report at the onset of the Trump administration, knowing that immigration enforcement would be a centerpiece of their agenda. We know that the fight to #AbolishICE and defend immigrant communities will require action at both the federal and local level. Given our current administration, however, significant change in Washington, D.C., is unlikely. For true accountability, we must turn to both local political allies and those in the private sector to address the surveillance and tech infrastructure that directly and indirectly facilitate the immigration dragnet.
It is also clear that policing, detention, and deportation have, indeed, become lucrative enterprises for Silicon Valley companies, and they will only continue to expand without the public scrutiny and proactive measures needed to stop them. And although those solutions are still in the making, we know that there must be multiple tactics and strategies to defend our communities, including:
1. We call on states, cities, and local municipalities to expand their “sanctuary city” policies by ending: (1) contracts that allow unfettered information sharing technologies and biometric collection to and from ICE; (2) contracts with private data brokers that work with ICE, and (3) predictive policing programs such as those developed by Palantir. Cities and states that have contracts with Palantir should immediately cancel those contracts. Stopping local law enforcement agencies from collecting, storing, and accessing data on Palantir systems is one important step toward ensuring the civil and human rights of local residents. States should also consider passing strong biometrics privacy protection laws that will allow people to decide how and if their intimate biometric scans should be used
2. We call on tech company employees to continue raising their voices against their companies’ contracts with military, police, and immigration agencies. Executives are being put on notice — by the international community, by immigrant rights activists, and by their very own workers. Thousands of tech workers at different firms, from Google to Amazon to Microsoft, have decried their companies’ contracts with military and immigration agencies, threatening to withhold their labor if human rights guidelines are not produced to govern the use of tech they themselves created. Tech companies have the means to declare their values and oppose the systems that are jailing immigrants and creating fear within vulnerable communities everywhere.
3. We call for increased public scrutiny to track Amazon’s and Palantir’s dominance in meeting the data storage needs of various federal agencies:
- We urge more research profiling both Amazon and Palantir and mapping out the links between them and the various agencies they service.
- We call for more detailed analyses of the campaign contributions made by tech lobbyists to federal legislators, the public policy positions of those legislators vis-a-vis cloud computing and other tech contracts, and the “revolving door” of those involved at the highest levels of the tech industry and government.
- We beseech all advocates and our movement to develop a fuller understanding of how tech tools, like ICM, work on the ground and what kinds of surveillance and prosecution are enabled by such technology that were not possible before. We can no longer afford to craft and implement anti-immigration enforcement campaigns that ignore the role of tech.
This is not a time to be neutral. As we continue to develop strategies to defend our communities against the Trump/Sessions white supremacist agenda and the human rights crisis it has unleashed, we must challenge everyone in Silicon Valley, from the companies themselves, to their investors, consumers, and workers, to declare which side they are on. Right now, Amazon and Palantir’s contracts with DHS plant them firmly on the side of Trump. We must challenge our own movement to understand how the Trump administration in general, and DHS/ICE in particular, finds new ways to target our communities, and to use that information to inform our organizing strategies. We must step up in this unprecedented moment to respond to the threats we face with agility, force and innovation.