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ICE Taps Private Facebook Data to Track Down Targets

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Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Maybe Facebook should stop asking users, “What’s on your mind?” Because what’s on their minds is outrage. First, the social network came under fire for allowing Cambridge Analytica – a data company co-founded by Steve Bannon – to steal data from 50 million profiles. That information may have been used to create character profiles of users and influence their voting in the 2016 presidential election.

Now, it’s been revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also secretly accesses private Facebook information to track down suspects.

Online publication The Intercept  submitted a public records request and procured emails between ICE agents and detectives in New Mexico. They reported that ICE agents obtained a record of when a suspect logged in to Facebook, the IP addresses of the computers he used and the phone number associated with the account. 

In the emails, the ICE agent said she was receiving backend information through Palantir, a data analytics firm co-founded by billionaire Trump donor Peter Thiel, who was part of Trump’s transition team after he was elected President.

Palantir’s collusion with ICE predates Trump’s presidency. In 2014, ICE gave the firm $41 million to build an Investigative Case Management system to harvest a vast variety of personal data to locate people and build cases against them. However, the system only fully came online in 2017, in time to fuel Trump’s deportation machine.

Not much is known about how and to what extent ICE uses Palantir to obtain Facebook information and other data.

Facebook told The Intercept, “Every request we receive [from ICE and other government agencies] is checked for legal sufficiency. We require officials to provide a detailed description of the legal and factual basis for their request, and we push back when we find legal deficiencies or overly broad or vague demands for information.”

In the case of the obtained emails, the suspect was allegedly a child predator who had not violated any immigration laws. It is unclear why Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as opposed to another government entity, would have been investigating him. Facebook says it complied with the request to disclose information because of the severity of a child predator case.

Due to an editing error, The Intercept originally reported:

Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 4.48.07 PM

When it later emerged that the man apparently had not broken any immigration laws and may or may not have been an immigrant, The Intercept replaced the word “immigrants” with “suspects.” However, the point is that ICE has the power to obtain private Facebook data and could use it to locate and make cases against undocumented immigrants, who are their main targets.

This is one of many incidences of the government obtaining personal social media and internet data for dubious purposes.

As we have reported on Lacey & Larkin Frontera Fund, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last September that they would collect social media information from all  immigrants, including permanent residents and naturalized citizens.

A month before that, we reported that the Department of Justice demanded that a web hosting company hand over information from about 1.3 million people who merely visited an anti-Trump website.

A few months before that, the Trump administration approved a questionnaire that requests visa applicants to list their social media handles for the past five years.

And a month before that, we reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were requesting cellphones and passwords for electronic devices in order to invade individuals’ information – even data from citizens and legal permanent residents.