If you had to choose between having running water at home or risking your home being raided by the authorities, which would you choose? The correct answer is: this shouldn’t even be a question.
But it’s become one. The startling truth is that signing up for even basic utilities in this country has turned into a gamble for many people, particularly undocumented immigrants. Last week, the Washington Post revealed that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) has paid tens of millions of dollars since 2017 for access to a private database that contains more than “400m names, addresses and service records from more than 80 utility companies covering all the staples of modern life, including water, gas and electricity, and phone, internet and cable TV”. The information has been mined by Ice, the Post reported, for immigration surveillance and enforcement operations.
Neither Ice nor any other federal agency should have unfettered access to this data. In fact, there are strict protocols and regulations that determine how the federal government can gather your information and when it can infringe on your privacy, much of this is codified in the Privacy Act of 1974, as the Post notes. So how are federal agencies like Ice getting around these legal safeguards, which would otherwise prevent them from scooping up such data on their own and without a court order? Simple. They just buy it. With taxpayer money.
Ice paid almost $21m for access to a database called Clear, which is owned by the multinational media conglomerate Thomson Reuters. Clear is reported to contain billions of your records, including employment and housing information, credit reports, criminal histories, vehicle registrations and data from utility companies in all 50 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. It’s also updated daily.
This isn’t just surveillance capitalism. It’s worse. The main idea behind surveillance capitalism is that we, the world’s internet users and smartphone aficionados, have been persuaded to give up the wealth of our personal information in meager exchange for convenient access to big data’s apps and platforms. Think free email. Meanwhile, big data takes our information and gleefully monetizes every element of us. The result is micro-scale predictive algorithms that have grave consequences for our democracy, our freedoms and even our humanity.
But what Ice has been doing 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 the location data of millions of Muslims culled from popular Muslim prayer apps and dating apps. We also know that Ice and the FBI have deployed flawed facial recognition software on millions of state driver’s licenses without the knowledge or consent of those license holders. Then there was the time that Amazon tried to sell use of its own facial recognition software, called Rekognition, to Ice. Or the ways that Ice subcontracted with a company called Vigilant Solutions in a massive, automated license plate-reading program. According to the ACLU, “Ice has access to over 5bn data points of location information collected by private businesses, like insurance companies and parking lots, and can gain access to an additional 1.5bn records collected by law enforcement agencies”. These examples are, of course, only the tip of the surveillance iceberg.
Because the power of the government is so immense, the union of government might with surveillance capitalism should worry every single one of us. Facebook may want to know everything about your shopping and surfing habits, but perhaps the worst it can do to you individually is put you in a metaphorical “Facebook jail”. Governments, needless to say, can send you to a real prison.
And, as it turns out, government agencies can also try to find you on the basis of a utility bill so as to deport you. Georgetown Law School’s Center on Privacy & Technology discovered the link between Clear and Ice, and as the Center’s Nina Wang told the Washington Post: “There needs to be a line drawn in defense of people’s basic dignity. And when the fear of deportation could endanger their ability to access these basic services, that line is being crossed.” The notion that Ice would force such a Faustian tradeoff – between having heat in your apartment and exposing yourself to deportation – is unconscionable.
Before anyone wants to argue that these immigrants brought the situation upon themselves, take a moment to consider that almost 70% of undocumented immigrant workers have frontline jobs considered essential to the US fight against Covid-19. About half of the farm workers in the US are undocumented, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It’s further estimated that one out of every 20 workers in agriculture, housing, food services and healthcare is undocumented. The fact is that undocumented workers are often the very people keeping all of us 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, beginning with immediate adjustment of status to legal permanent resident”. While France has done something similar recently by fast-tracking citizenship for its frontline foreign workers, the US could do it better by recognizing the heroic labor that undocumented immigrants have contributed to the national effort to combat 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 undocumented essential workers. Providing these workers with the chance to earn citizenship, they wrote, “will help to ensure that the economic recovery reaches all corners of society, including those that have disproportionately been on the frontlines of the pandemic and yet left out of prior relief bills, and establishes a more stable and equitable foundation on which future economic success can be built”.
The contract Ice had with Clear expired on 28 February 2021. It’s unclear if the Biden administration will seek to renew it, but they shouldn’t. Instead of further empowering Ice’s punitive and unaccountable surveillance state, Biden should work with Congress to pass the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act. After all, one set of workers is operating illegitimately in the shadows, while the other is working hard to preserve our way of life. In the full light of day, it shouldn’t be hard to see which is which.
Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York