BAILEY T. STEEN | SATURDAY, APRIL 7, 2018
No SANCTUARY FOR PRIVACY is the new Facebook motto, these days, according to a new report from The Intercept revealing that ICE officers, tasked with carrying out the Trump administration’s deportation agenda, now use private data from the social media giant to track down potential criminal suspects.
Haunted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the personal information of over 50 million American users was sold to a Trump-linked political consulting firm, Facebook has quickly become the controversial poster child of the big tech privacy debate, forcing us to question whether such powerful entities should continue to freely use our private data for a technocratic wild wild west system. Officers for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are more than happy to exploit this system, of course, as the new internal emails and documents show how the department used the backend data to secure their target.
According to journalist Lee Fang, it was Homeland Security agent Lea Whitis who emailed ICE agents some form of “Facebook Business Record” revealing the name, time, IP address, location and device used during account logins.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the nature of American justice system and the Stored Communications Act, a piece of legislation that spits on the intentions of the fourth amendment. Whereas American law enforcement require both a search warrant and probable cause to conduct an investigation into your home, the internet doesn’t really grant users an online “home”, given it’s all ones and zeroes in cyberspace that are really stored somewhere else — your online home really being your internet service provider like Comcast who will surely fuck you over in a second.
With this in mind, officers can simply ask these third parties to hand the information over if they can obtain a subpoena and prior notice — which is much easier to prove than probable cause.
“Occasionally companies will push back, but that’s relatively rare,” said Nathan Wessler, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, who recently spoke with The Intercept. “From time to time, companies will push back if they receive what they perceive to be a grossly over-broad request, like a true dragnet request, or if there’s a request for example to unmask the identity of someone who is engaging in First Amendment-protected speech online anonymously. But they — for the vast majority of the requests — they comply.
“For these subpoenas,” he continued, “it’s trivially easy for ICE or any other law enforcement agencies to issue. They don’t require the involvement of a judge ahead of time. It’s really just a piece of paper that they’ve prepared ahead of time, a form, and they fill in a couple of pieces of information about what they’re looking for...”
Already the process sounds rather easy, assuming they don’t already go through the illegal ways of the all-seeing NSA and conduct cases through what’s known as a “parallel construction”. This is an illegal process, revealed to the public by NSA whistleblower William E. Binney, who alleges the government illegally obtains information about criminals, through means like NSA metadata spying, and proceed to tip the cops off about said criminal so they can organise a way to catch the guy without anyone finding out they committed a crime in order to catch criminals — which is not exactly a new thing when it comes to ICE.
TrigTent has previously reported on how officers frequently try to skirt past constitutional protections granted to illegal immigrants. According to the HSI Search and Seizure Handbook, which is currently used by the department, shady tactics include “denaturalization”, where ICE put illegals through civil trials to strip them of their status, steal their property through “asset forfeitures” only to be sold for more equipment for the department and writing their own warrants to obtain a “proof of compliance”. To say ICE aren’t exactly the most lawfully reliable punch of bad hombres is quite the understatement. It was only a matter of time before stories of their use of private internet data came to the forefront.
In their statement to The Intercept, a Facebook spokesperson denied the social media company has a partnership with ICE in access their data:
“Facebook does not provide ICE or any other law enforcement agency with any special data access to assist with the enforcement of immigration law. We have strict processes in place to handle these government requests. Every request we receive 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 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.”
For context, The Intercept recently published a correction after a previously version of their article suggested ICE were using the data to specifically target illegal immigrants on the basis of their immigration status. They claim this was an error made by editor Ryan Grim who changed the language of Fang’s article to suggest this was the case. Instead, it appears the agents were combining “IP address information back from T-Mobile”.
“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,” Jen Miller, ICE agent involved with the investigation, said in the email thread.
So who is this Palantir? Well, it’s actually a data analytics company that was co-founded by the pro-Trump billionaire investor Peter Thiel, known for their ties to ICE and other important government branches. The Intercept actually discovered the firm were developing some form of “vast ecosystem” to help ICE track down illegal immigrants. The methods of how they track down these targets, however, are unclear.
“I have not heard of HSI going and getting private information from Facebook. What we’ve been seeing is when they use someone’s Facebook page and print what they’ve been posting to use as evidence to argue that person is a gang member,” Rachel K. Prandini, staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told Fang earlier this week. “Photos with friends ICE thinks are gang members, doing hand signs that ICE alleges are gang signs, or wearing clothes that ICE believes indicate gang membership are being pulled from Facebook and submitted as evidence in immigration court proceedings.”
Matthew Bourke, a spokesperson for ICE, refused to speak on the nature of the case where this Facebook data was used but continues to say this was all done by the book and in accordance with the act:
“[We don’t] 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.
Court orders are an established procedure that is consistent with all other federal law enforcement agencies. Additionally, investigators can use open-source information that is readily available on various social-media platforms during the course of an investigation.”
Given this muddled state of affairs, where private data has so much influence and yet less protection than your own home, people should truly consider the establishment of an internet bill of rights — to definitively outline where do civil liberties begin and where does the state’s oversight end. Facebook is not the only company under the microscope for their management of data and our online liberties — which are perhaps more influential than our physical bubble around us.
Silicon Valley elites have quite the monopoly on their hands, with Zuckerberg having the ability to support immigration reform on the one hand and then have a company associating with ICE in potentially unaccountable shady ways on the other — with the two corrupt entities being made for one another. There need to be checks and balances, otherwise what is the internet other than a wild wild west with the gun of hackers, ISPs and the biggest government known to man at every corner.
Thanks for reading!
Bailey T. Steen is a journalist, editor, artist and film critic based in Victoria, Australia, but is also Putin’s Puppet™ on occasion.
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Cheers, darlings!! 💋