The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency may have used backend Facebook data to locate and track a suspect and used those logs to reveal the suspect’s phone number and location, The Intercept’s Lee Fang reported Monday.
The Intercept’s public records request found that in February and March 2017, several agents at Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) — the critical investigative arm of ICE — corresponded with a detective in Las Cruces, New Mexico to track down one particular suspect who reportedly was wiring money through New York City. Through backend Facebook data, the agents were able to access IP addresses and phone numbers that matched up with each login. One agent suggested another get the “IP address information back from T-Mobile” so that she could “get you a name of someone in the CE Unit” in New York.
As Fang pointed out, law enforcement officials “routinely use bank, telephone, and internet records for investigations, but the extent to which ICE uses social media is not well known.”
“I am going to see if our Palantir guy is here to dump the Western Union info in there since I know there is a way to triangulate the area he’s sending money from and narrow down time of day etc,” ICE agent Jen Miller said, according to The Intercept.
Palantir is a data-mining organization that was founded by billionaire Peter Thiel and that counts multiple U.S. federal agencies among its clientele, including the CIA, FBI, and NSA. The company tracks potential terrorist suspects and can allow the military to collect DNA samples and “tap into information gathered from years of collecting fingerprints and DNA evidence,” The Guardian reported. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, also uses Palantir to make predictions on who will commit crimes.
An ICE spokesperson told The Intecept that the agency would not “comment on investigative techniques or tactics other than to say that during the course of a criminal investigation, we have the ability to seek subpoenas and court orders to legally compel a company to provide information that may assist in case completion and subsequent prosecution.”
It’s important to note here that we do not know the suspect’s immigration status. HSI agents are criminal investigators — focusing on things like threats to national security, human trafficking, identity fraud, and more — and they aren’t the same as ICE agents who round up immigrants more broadly. Nor do we know the extent to which this is all happening.
Facebook later told The Intercept that it “does not provide ICE or any other law enforcement agency with any special data access to assist with the enforcement of immigration law.”
“In this case, our records show that ICE sent valid legal process to us in an investigation said to involve an active child predator. We take the enforcement of laws protecting children from child predators very seriously, and we responded to ICE’s valid request with data consistent with our publicly available data disclosure standards. ICE did not identify any immigration law violations in connection with its data request to Facebook in this case.”
While Facebook is undergoing major scrutiny for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook also appears to have helped ICE agents last year when agents got a cellphone number for an undocumented immigrant living in Detroit.
Aside from this report, however, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that ICE has been pursuing legitimate though backend methods to detain and deport immigrants. In January, it was revealed that ICE was awarded a contract to access a nationwide vehicle license plate registry database. In addition to the contract, the Department of Homeland Security already uses thousands of sensors in the southern U.S. border to monitor license plates.
RETRACTION: This piece was based on an Intercept report that initially stated that ICE agents were using Facebook data to track immigrants more broadly. The piece has since been updated after additional reporting and clarification from the Intercept to note that HSI tracked down one suspect.