USA monitors immigrants via app

SmartLink product presentation
Activists fear that data collected via the smartphone app could also be sold. (Screenshot:

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is having tens of thousands of people monitored with a smartphone app. What happens to the collected data remains largely unclear. Activists fear that the data could be used for law enforcement. Members of Congress have also criticised the surveillance programme.

As the Guardian reports, the “Intensive Supervision Appearance Program” in the USA is an “alternative to detention”. It affects asylum seekers or people who have been arrested for entering the US illegally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can allow them to wait at home for their court hearing – provided they allow themselves to be monitored by the authority. For this purpose, those affected can, for example, be required to wear an ankle bracelet or install an app on their smartphone.

According to the newspaper, about 180,000 immigrants are currently monitored in this way, with at least 95,000 using the SmartLink app for this purpose. The news channel ABC News even speaks of more than 125,000 people. Many of them were stopped at the border between Mexico and the USA.

They have to comply with reporting obligations and, for example, send in a photo of themselves every week. This photo is compared with previously taken pictures via facial recognition. The officials are supposed to use the location data of the photo to determine whether those monitored are complying with travel restrictions.

Company processes data

SmartLink stems from a company called BI, which works on behalf of the Immigration Department. BI is a subsidiary of Geo Group which in turn runs private prisons for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Guardian conducted interviews with those affected and former employees of BI, as well as analysing public documents on SmartLink. The report said BI and ICE gave different information about how often the app transmitted the location of people under surveillance. It also said the app collects other data about its users.

At the end of February, US lawmakers had already criticized SmartLink’s data protection regulations as being too broad. It remains unclear exactly what data the company collects and what it uses it for.

According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the location is only continuously monitored when an ankle bracelet is worn. For app users, on the other hand, location is not “actively monitored”, but only transmitted during weekly reports.

However, according to the Guardian, there are indications that this information is not correct. For example, the app indicates that the constant use of GPS reduces battery life. In addition, several people monitored with the app said they were told by BI to keep their phones on at all times. They were also told to carry their phones with them at all times. They were also instructed to leave location services on at all times. The reason given was that this would allow the company to track their location at all times.

ICE did not explain to the Guardian why they had received such instructions.

Data could be passed on

According to the Guardian’s research, other user data also ends up with BI: the pictures uploaded for the weekly report, including the location of the shots, as well as all the information entered into the app which includes personal data. The data on app use and the user’s telephone number are also collected.

It remains unclear how long the company will store this data. A former BI employee told the Guardian that he had been able to access pictures and location data that were months old.

The question of with whom the company and the immigration authorities share the data also remains open. Julia Mao of the immigration rights organization Just Futures Law fears that the data could be passed on to other authorities and used, for example, for criminal prosecution. There is also a risk that sensitive biometric data could be sold.

The Guardian reports that BI is encouraging agencies to share data with each other. The company is offering local law enforcement agencies an app called Total Access, which allows them to access case files. The software is used in probation programmes, he said. Authorities could also see people who are being monitored by other agencies on a map. For example, if a person under surveillance is near a crime scene, this information could be shared with the relevant authorities.

Organizations such as Just Futures Law warn that data collected from immigrants could still be used by the authorities even if the people concerned have already been granted legal residence status.

Lawmakers criticize surveillance

The US government wants to expand the “Intensive Supervision Appearance Program” in the coming years and monitor more people. Already at the end of February, several members of Congress had called on the Department of Homeland Security to reduce the number of immigrants under surveillance. In addition, the contract between the US government and BI should be examined.

The lawmakers argued that the programme was a punitive measure, as those affected were sometimes monitored for years. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said: “People coming to America are simply seeking a chance at a better life, just as countless others have before them, and want nothing more than a safe place to live and raise their families.” He said the US must move away from policies that imprison immigrants en masse, which enrich companies in the prison and surveillance industries.

Lawmakers criticize the immigration authorities for overusing surveillance measures. In the past, ankle bracelets were a rarity, but now they are standard. Asylum seekers, families, pregnant or breastfeeding women, who used to be considered less of a risk, are now also subject to intensive surveillance. And lawmakers warned: The surveillance programme would lead to psychological and physical harm, and make integration more difficult.

Just Futures Law and the organization Mijente had already published a report on the programme in May 2021, calling the measures “digital prisons”. In it, they had already expressed concerns about SmartLink. Through such apps, the immigration system and the penal system would be linked. The surveillance of immigrants should be ended. (js)