Report: New Homeland Security Policy Would Subject Millions of Immigrants and Naturalized Citizens to Digital Monitoring

Posted on September 28, 2017

In a policy change announced earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security seeks to expand its immigrant records database to incorporate the collection and storage of new information streams, including social media and other digital content. The new departmental guidelines, which are slated to go into effect on October 18, 2017, would allow Homeland Security to acquire and store, in addition to its previously collected data points, information on social networking accounts and usernames, search engine results, and other “associated identifiable information” on incoming and current immigrants to the United States. Additionally, the new policy would gather data from “commercial data aggregators” as well as pools of “information shared through information sharing agreements” and even “foreign government agencies.”

The revision to Homeland Security’s collection mandate would serve to concentrate the personal data compiled in the main databases for the department’s United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the “Electronic Immigration System” (ELIS) and the “Enterprise Document Management System” (EDMS). These two repositories retain records of “Alien Files,” or “A-Files,” which log personally identifiable data points principally for law enforcement purposes. While USCIS A-Files have traditionally pertained exclusively to immigrants, the announced procedural change would dramatically broaden the classes of people documented in these A-Files and supplementary records to include, along with visa holders and lawful permanent residents, naturalized US citizens, guardians for immigrants with mental or physical disabilities, relatives of immigrants, and even immigrants’ legal counsel or representatives. As of figures from 2015, naturalized citizens alone make up 6 percent of the US population, and 48 percent of all immigrants, at 20.7 million people. 

In order for many of these potential targets to be subject to the monitoring necessitated to generate the department’s files, there must be a clear investigative reason for doing so, such as involvement in immigration-related crimes or evaluation of eligibility for certain assistance or humanitarian programs open to immigrants. But in the case of the former justification, that of law enforcement considerations, the FBI and other federal agencies have demonstrated that surveillance techniques can be deployed merely by alleging national security relevance and initiating a preliminary fact-finding investigation. Even more alarming is the wide latitude the policy would grant for agencies under Homeland Security’s banner to disseminate information contained in the ELIS and EDMS databases to a range of third-parties, from other law enforcement agencies from the local to federal level to independent surveillance or defense contractors to even “foreign government agencies.” Given the murky relationship between federal agencies and private contractors, it is also entirely plausible, if not inevitable, that information derived from intelligence sources could make its way into the ELIS and EDMS repositories–a March article in The Intercept revealed that, although the company maintained that software safeguards would enforce a boundary between databases they administered for both Homeland Security and the US Intelligence Community, Palantir intelligence analytics software allowed ICE agents to access restricted CIA databases.

Taken together, the changes outlined in the new policy mark a swift and frightening expansion of the federal law enforcement’s surveillance apparatus. That Homeland Security intends to extend its jurisdiction to encompass naturalized citizens, full-fledged Americans in their own right, is disconcerting enough, but the fact that it will populate its records on these and other targets with social media data acquired from data mining companies, independent contractors, intelligence agencies, and possibly foreign intelligence entities is truly chilling. 

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.