USA: ATLAS software can cause expatriation

In the U.S., federal software checks whether people should be expatriated. Civil rights activists warn of discrimination.

USCIS-Lettering with Flag
The system vets people as soon as they come into contact with immigration authorities. (Source: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire)

In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses previously little-known software to screen naturalized immigrants. A negative mark can lead to revocation of citizenship and deportation. That’s according to The Intercept magazine, citing documents obtained by the civil liberties organizations Open Society Justice Initiative and Muslim Advocates following freedom of information requests.

The ATLAS software was developed in 2014 by USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, under the Department of Homeland Security. The program conducts background checks to determine if an individual has made potentially false statements during the immigration process. It also looks for signs of whether an individual could pose a threat to public safety or national security. As The Intercept reports, ATLAS does this as part of the larger Fraud Detection and National Security Data System, which manages case information on every person in the immigration system.

The software also examines the social environment of those affected. It visually depicts relationships between individuals, which is intended to identify links to criminal or terrorist activities.

Secret mode of operation

ATLAS compares personal data with various federal databases for an analysis. Most of the sources are unknown. It is clear, however, that biometric data such as fingerprints are included in the investigation. In certain cases, the system is also supposed to evaluate information on a person’s ethnicity or origin. In addition, the software uses information from two databases managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: the Terrorist Screening Database and the central crime database known as the National Crime Information Center.

Both databases have been criticized in the past: for example, for providing incorrect results when querying immigration status.

If ATLAS flags a person and recommends their “potential denaturalization,” DHS employees make the final decision on how to proceed. The Department keeps the exact functionality of the algorithm used a secret. Thus, it is not clear on what basis ATLAS decides to revoke a person’s citizenship.

“Threat to naturalized people”

Laura Bingham, an attorney with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said it must be proven that ATLAS does not lead to “unjust, arbitrary and discriminatory results.” She said there are sufficient reasons to consider the system a “threat to naturalized people.”

Deborah Choi of the civil rights organization Muslim Advocates criticized that the secret rules make it impossible to find out whether certain groups are being disproportionately flagged. However, she said, it is likely that the inclusion of country of origin will lead to people from countries with a Muslim-majority being particularly targeted.

The Intercept reports that the system threatens to increase the damage caused by bureaucratic errors. After all, the manual checking of ATLAS results is based on the assumption that the data used is correct. There is no provision for subjects to correct erroneous data; they would have to contact the authorities responsible for the databases used.

According to Choi, expatriations do occur in the U.S. due to errors, for example, by translators or in record keeping. These could easily be interpreted as an attempt to defraud. As a result, irreparable damage is done to families and society.

Deportations as a goal

It is unclear how many people have actually had their citizenship revoked based on ATLAS results. In a 2019 press release, USCIS had indicated that ATLAS had already been used to conduct more than 16.5 million investigations and issue about 124,000 warnings.

The system is not only used for naturalizations: It already screens people as soon as they make contact with U.S. immigration authorities. According to the report, immigrants could be subjected to algorithmic screening indefinitely because ATLAS also checks cases in which a decision has already been made.

The Intercept describes ATLAS as a “direct descendant” of an infrastructure built under several U.S. presidents. Masses of fingerprints were digitized and searched simultaneously to find discrepancies. Documents suggested that the goal of these efforts was deportations.

Experts told the magazine that verification via an algorithm can have consequences that are not related to the behaviour of the individuals concerned. Repeatedly, the matching of fingerprints with sloppily kept records has led to innocent people being punished.

Citizenship can be revoked from naturalized immigrants in the U.S. in cases of e.g. fraud in the immigration process. In 2020, the then U.S. administration had also announced that it would create a separate office for denaturalizations within the Justice Department to take action against “terrorists, war criminals, sex offenders and fraudsters.” During the then Trump administration, denaturalization cases forwarded to the department increased by 600 percent between 2017 and 2020, The New York Times wrote at the time. The Intercept reports that this authority has yet to begin its work.

Back in May, the organization Muslim Advocates joined more than 40 other organizations in calling for the use of ATLAS to be halted until the discriminatory effects of the system were investigated. It also said that how the system makes its decisions and which demographic groups are affected should be made public. (js)