Photograph: HO / AFP / Getty Images
If you had to choose between having running water at home or risking a search by the authorities, which would you choose? The correct answer is: it shouldn’t even be a question.
But it became one. The startling truth is that enrolling in even basic public services in this country has become a gamble for many people, especially undocumented immigrants. Last week, the Washington Post revealed that the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) had paid tens of millions of dollars since 2017 to access a private database containing more than “400 million names, addresses and service records from over 80 utility companies covering all the basic commodities of modern life, including water, gas and electricity, telephone, internet and cable television ”. The information was extracted by Ice, the Post reported, for the purposes of immigration surveillance and law enforcement operations.
Neither Ice nor any other federal agency should have unrestricted access to this data. In fact, there are strict protocols and regulations that determine how the federal government can collect your information and when it can infringe on your privacy, much of this is codified in the Privacy Protection Act of 1974, as the Post notes. So how do federal agencies like Ice circumvent these legal guarantees, which would otherwise prevent them from collecting such data on their own and without a court order? Simple. They just buy it. With taxpayers’ money.
Ice paid nearly $ 21 million to access a database called Clear, which is owned by multinational media conglomerate Thomson Reuters. Clear would contain billions of your records, including employment and housing information, credit reports, criminal history, vehicle registrations, and utility company data in all 50 states, Washington DC, Porto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. It is also updated daily.
It’s not just surveillance capitalism. It’s worse. The main idea behind surveillance capitalism is that we internet users around the world and smartphone aficionados have been persuaded to give up our wealth of personal information in a meager exchange for convenient access to apps and big data platforms. Think about free emails. Meanwhile, big data takes our information and happily monetizes every bit of us. The result is micro-scale predictive algorithms that have serious consequences for our democracy, our freedoms and even our humanity.
But what Ice does is different. The marriage of government and surveillance capitalism reveals yet another depth to our contemporary pixelated nightmare. We already know that the Department of Defense, for example, was buying location data of millions of Muslims taken from popular Muslim prayer apps and dating apps. We also know that Ice and the FBI deployed faulty facial recognition software on millions of state driver’s licenses without the knowledge or consent of those license holders. Then there was the moment when Amazon tried to sell the use of its own facial recognition software, called Rekognition, to Ice. Or the ways Ice has contracted out with a company called Vigilant Solutions for a massive automated license plate reading program. According to the ACLU, “Ice has access to more than 5 billion data points of location information collected by private companies, such as insurance companies and parking lots, and can access 1.5 billion records. additional collected by the police ”. These examples are, of course, just the tip of the surveillance iceberg.
Because the power of government is so immense, the union of government with surveillance capitalism should be of concern to all of us. Facebook might want to know everything about your shopping and browsing habits, but the worst it can do to you individually is to put you in a metaphorical “Facebook jail.” It goes without saying that governments can send you to a real prison.
And, it turns out that government agencies can also try to find you on the basis of a utility bill in order to evict you. The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law School discovered the connection between Clear and Ice, and as the Center’s Nina Wang told the Washington Post, “You need a line to stand up for the basic dignity of people. And when fear of deportation could jeopardize their ability to access these basic services, that line is crossed. The idea that Ice would force such a Faustian compromise – between having heat in your apartment and exposing yourself to deportation – is unacceptable.
Before anyone wants to argue that these immigrants caused the situation on their own, take a moment to consider that nearly 70% of undocumented immigrant workers have frontline jobs seen as essential in America’s fight against Covid-19. . About half of farm workers in the United States are undocumented, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It is further estimated that one in 20 workers in agriculture, housing, food service and health care is undocumented. The point is, undocumented workers are often the very ones keeping us all fed, warm and healthy during this terrible pandemic.
In recognition of this fact, Senator Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, introduced his first bill last week, the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act. The bill offers “a fast, accessible and secure path to citizenship, starting with the immediate adjustment of lawful permanent resident status.” While France has done something similar recently by speeding up citizenship for its frontline foreign workers, the United States could do it better by recognizing the heroic work that undocumented immigrants have contributed to the national effort to fight. against Covid.
More than 60 leading economists also recently wrote a group letter to the Biden administration arguing for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, especially essential undocumented workers. Giving these workers the chance to obtain citizenship, they wrote, “will help ensure that the economic recovery reaches all corners of society, including those who have been disproportionately on the front lines of the pandemic. and yet excluded from previous relief bills, and establish a more stable and equitable basis on which future economic success can be built ”.
The contract Ice had with Clear expired on February 28, 2021. It is not known whether the Biden administration will seek to renew it, but it should not. Instead of further strengthening Ice’s punitive and irresponsible oversight power, Biden should work with Congress to pass the Essential Worker Citizenship Act. After all, one group of workers illegally operate in the shadows, while the other works hard to preserve our way of life. In bright daylight, it shouldn’t be hard to see which is which.