The legal research and public records data broker LexisNexis is providing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with tools to target people who may potentially commit a crime — before any actual crime takes place, according to a contract document obtained by The Intercept. LexisNexis data then helps ICE to track the purported pre-criminals’ movements.
The unredacted contract overview provides a rare look at the controversial $16.8 million agreement between LexisNexis and ICE, a federal law enforcement agency whose surveillance of and raids against migrant communities are widely criticized as brutal, unconstitutional, and inhumane.
“The purpose of this program is mass surveillance at its core.”
“The purpose of this program is mass surveillance at its core,” said Julie Mao, an attorney and co-founder of Just Futures Law, which is suing LexisNexis over allegations it illegally buys and sells personal data. Mao told The Intercept the ICE contract document, which she reviewed for The Intercept, is “an admission and indication that ICE aims to surveil individuals where no crime has been committed and no criminal warrant or evidence of probable cause.”
While the company has previously refused to answer any questions about precisely what data it’s selling to ICE or to what end, the contract overview describes LexisNexis software as not simply a giant bucket of personal data, but also a sophisticated analytical machine that purports to detect suspicious activity and scrutinize migrants — including their locations.
“This is really concerning,” Emily Tucker, the executive director of Georgetown Law School’s Center on Privacy and Technology, told The Intercept. Tucker compared the contract to controversial and frequently biased predictive policing software, causing heightened alarm thanks to ICE’s use of license plate databases. “Imagine if whenever a cop used PredPol to generate a ‘hot list’ the software also generated a map of the most recent movements of any vehicle associated with each person on the hot list.”
The document, a “performance of work statement” made as part of the contract with ICE, was obtained by journalist Asher Stockler through a public records request and shared with The Intercept. LexisNexis Risk Solutions, a subsidiary of LexisNexis’s parent company, inked the contract with ICE, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, in 2021.
“LexisNexis Risk Solutions prides itself on the responsible use of data, and the contract with the Department of Homeland Security encompasses only data allowed for such uses,” said LexisNexis spokesperson Jennifer Richman. She told The Intercept the company’s work with ICE doesn’t violate the law or federal policy, but did not respond to specific questions.
The document reveals that over 11,000 ICE officials, including within the explicitly deportation-oriented Enforcement and Removal Operations branch, were using LexisNexis as of 2021. “This includes supporting all aspects of ICE screening and vetting, lead development, and criminal analysis activities,” the document says.
In practice, this means ICE is using software to “automate” the hunt for suspicious-looking blips in the data, or links between people, places, and property. It is unclear how such blips in the data can be linked to immigration infractions or criminal activity, but the contract’s use of the term “automate” indicates that ICE is to some extent letting computers make consequential conclusions about human activity. The contract further notes that the LexisNexis analysis includes “identifying potentially criminal and fraudulent behavior before crime and fraud can materialize.” (ICE did not respond to a request for comment.)
LexisNexis supports ICE’s activities through a widely used data system named the Law Enforcement Investigative Database Subscription. The contract document provides the most comprehensive window yet for what data tools might be offered to a LEIDS clients. Other federal, state, and local authorities who pay a hefty subscription fee for the LexisNexis program could have access to the same powerful surveillance tools used by ICE.
The LEIDS program is used by ICE for “the full spectrum of its immigration enforcement,” according to the contract document. LexisNexis’s tools allow ICE to monitor the personal lives and mundane movements of migrants in the U.S., in search of incriminating “patterns” and for help to “strategize arrests.”
The ICE contract makes clear the extent to which LexisNexis isn’t simply a resource to be queried but a major power source for the American deportation machine.
LexisNexis is known for its vast trove of public records and commercial data, a constantly updating archive that includes information ranging from boating licenses and DMV filings to voter registrations and cellphone subscriber rolls. In the aggregate, these data points create a vivid mosaic of a person’s entire life, interests, professional activities, criminal run-ins no matter how minor, and far more.
While some of the data is valuable for the likes of researchers, journalists, and law students, LexisNexis has turned the mammoth pool of personal data into a lucrative revenue stream by selling it to law enforcement clients like ICE, who use the company’s many data points on over 280 million different people to not only determine whether someone constitutes a “risk,” but also to locate and apprehend them.
LexisNexis has long since deflected questions about its relationship by citing ICE’s “national security” and “public safety” mission; the agency is responsible for both criminal and civil immigration violations, including smuggling, other trafficking, and customs violations. The contract’s language, however, indicates LexisNexis is empowering ICE to sift through an large sea of personal data to do exactly what advocates have warned against: busting migrants for civil immigration violations, a far cry from thwarting terrorists and transnational drug cartels.
ICE has a documented history of rounding up and deporting nonviolent immigrants without any criminal history, whose only offense may be something on the magnitude of a traffic violation or civil immigration violation. The contract document further suggests LexisNexis is facilitating ICE’s workplace raids, one of the agency’s most frequently criticized practices, by helping immigration officials detect fraud through bulk searches of Social Security and phone numbers.
ICE investigators can use LexisNexis tools, the document says, to pull a large quantity of records about a specified individual’s life and visually map their relationships to other people and property. The practice stands as an exemplar of the digital surveillance sprawl that immigrant advocates have warned unduly broadens the gaze of federal suspicion onto masses of people.
Citing language from the contract, Mao, the lawyer on the lawsuit, said, “‘Patterns of relationships between entities’ likely means family members, one of the fears for immigrants and mixed status families is that LexisNexis and other data broker platforms can map out family relationships to identify, locate, and arrest undocumented individuals.”
The contract shows ICE can combine LexisNexis data with databases from other outside firms, namely PenLink, a controversial company that helps police nationwide request private user data from social media companies.
A license plate reader, center, and surveillance camera, top right, are seen at an intersection in West Baltimore, Md., on April 29, 2020.
Photo: Julio Cortez/AP
The contract’s “performance of work statement” mostly avoids delving into the numerous categories of data LEIDS makes available to ICE, but it does make clear the importance of one: scanned license plates .
The automatic scanning of license plates has created a feast for data-hungry government agencies, providing an effective means of tracking people. Many people are unaware that their license plates are continuously scanned as they drive throughout their communities and beyond — thanks to automated systems affixed to traffic lights, cop cars, and anywhere else a small camera might fit. These automated license plate reader systems, or ALPRs, are employed by an increasingly diverse range of surveillance-seekers, from toll booths to homeowners associations.
Police are a major consumer of the ALPR spigot. For them, tracking the humble license plate is a relatively cheap means of covertly tracking a person’s movements while — as with all the data offered by LexisNexis — potentially bypassing Fourth Amendment considerations. The trade in bulk license plate data is generally unregulated, and information about scanned plates is indiscriminately aggregated, stored, shared, and eventually sold through companies like LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters.
Though LexisNexis explored selling ICE its license plate scanner data according to the FOIA materials, federal procurement records show Thomson Reuters Special Services, a top LexisNexis Risk Solutions competitor, was awarded a contract in 2021 to provide license plate data. (Thomson Reuters did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
A major portion of the LEIDS overview document details ICE’s access to and myriad use of license plate reader data to geolocate its targets, providing the agency with 30 million new plate records monthly. The document says ICE can access data on any license plate query going back years; while the time frame for different kinds of investigations aren’t specified, the contract document says immigration investigations can query location and other data on a license plate going back five years.
“This begins to look a lot like indiscriminate, warrantless real-time surveillance capabilities for ICE with respect to any vehicle.”
The LEIDS license plate bounty provides ICE investigators with a variety of location-tracking surveillance techniques, including the ability to learn which license plates — presumably including people under no suspicion of any wrongdoing — have appeared in a location of interest. Users subscribing to LEIDS can also plug a plate into the system and automatically get updates on the car as they come in, including maps and vehicle images. ICE investigators are allowed to place up to 2,500 different license plates onto their own watchlist simultaneously, the contract notes.
ICE agents can also bring the car-tracking tech on the road through a dedicated smartphone app that allows them to, with only a few taps, snap a picture of someone’s plate to automatically place them on the watchlist. Once a plate of interest is snapped and uploaded, ICE agents then need only to wait for a convenient push notification informing them that there’s been activity detected about the car.
Combining the staggering number of plates with the ability to search them from anywhere provides a potent tool with little oversight, according to Tucker, of Georgetown Law.
Tucker told The Intercept, “This begins to look a lot like indiscriminate, warrantless real-time surveillance capabilities for ICE with respect to any vehicle encountered by any agent in any context.”
In conjunction with Thomson Reuters plate-reader data, the information provided by LexisNexis creates a potential for powerful tracking. Vehicle ownership and registration information from motor vehicle departments, for instance, can tie specific people to plate numbers. In addition, LexisNexis sells many other forms of personal information that can be used to chart a person’s general location and movements over time: Data on jail bookings, home utilities, and other detailed property and financial records tie people to both places and others in a way that’s difficult if not impossible to opt out of.
LexisNexis’s LEIDS program is, crucially, not an outlier in the United States. For-profit data brokers are increasingly tapped by law enforcement and intelligence agencies for both the vastness of the personal information they collect and the fact that this data can be simply purchased rather than legally obtained with a judge’s approval.
“Today, in a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer of them can avoid, CAI includes information on nearly everyone,” warned a recently declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on so-called commercially available information. Specifically citing LexisNexis, the report said the breadth of the information “could be used to cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety.”
While the ICE contract document is replete with mentions of how these tools will be used to thwart criminality — obscuring the extent to which this the ends up deporting noncriminal migrants guilty of breaking only civil immigration rules — Tucker said the public should take seriously the inflated ambitions of ICE’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security.
“What has happened in the last several years is that DHS’s ‘immigration enforcement’ activities have been subordinated to its mass surveillance activities,” Tucker said, “which produce opportunities for immigration enforcement but no longer have the primary purpose of immigration enforcement.”
“What has happened in the last several years is that DHS’s ‘immigration enforcement’ activities have been subordinated to its mass surveillance activities.”
The federal government allows the general Homeland Security apparatus so much legal latitude, Tucker explained, that an agency like ICE is the perfect vehicle for indiscriminate surveillance of the general public, regardless of immigration status.
“That’s not to say that DHS isn’t still detaining and deporting hundreds of thousands of people every year. Of course they are, and it’s horrific,” Tucker said. “But the main goal of DHS’s surveillance infrastructure is not immigration enforcement, it’s … surveillance.
“Use the agency that operates with the fewest legal and political restraints to put everyone inside a digital panopticon, and then figure out who to target for what kind of enforcement later, depending on the needs of the moment.”
Update: June 21, 2023
This story has been updated to clarify that Thomson Reuters Special Services was contracted in 2021 to provide license plate scanner data for the LEIDS program used by ICE.
Update: June 23, 2023
This story has been updated to include specifics on the types of data LexisNexis makes available to ICE that could allow the agency to geolocate and track people.