‘Unnecessary, Wasteful;” Rights Groups Balk at ICE’s New $US7.2 ($10) Million Migrant Facial Recognition Contract

‘Unnecessary, Wasteful;” Rights Groups Balk at ICE’s New $US7.2 ($10) Million Migrant Facial Recognition Contract
People climb a section of border fence to look toward supporters in the U.S. as members of a caravan of Central American asylum seekers arrive to a rally on April 29, 2018 in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

U.S. border agents at this point have a long history of skirting along the edges of legality to pursue its eager interest in facial recognition technology, even going as far as to explore integrating the tech with body cams. Now, federal documents show Immigrations and Customs Enforcement will spend $US7.2 ($10) million on facial recognition tools to track and monitor migrants.

The documents, first spotted by Insider, reveal an April contract renewal which will see monitoring firm Trust Stamp provide ICE 10,000 smartphones preinstalled with the firm’s facial recognition app and GPS tracking capabilities. That contact represents an extension and significant ramp up of a previous $US3.9 ($5) million contract ICE signed with Trust Stamp back in September 2021. Under the extended contract, ICE may use Trump Stamp’s service up until September of this year for a $US7.2 ($10) million total annual cost.

According to the documents, Trust Stamp’s facial recognition identity confirmation tools are used to, “facilitate rapid processing and enrollments of noncitizens,” into ICE’s so-called Alternative to Detention Program. That program, which builds off the agency’s controversial 2004 Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), requires that migrants submit to a mix of facial recognition scans, GPS tracking smartphone apps, location tracking ankle bracelets and other monitoring technologies so ICE can keep constant tabs on them.

Around 200,000 migrants were reportedly enrolled in the program as of March, more than double the amount enrolled during the first half of 2021. ICE claims ISAP and programs like it are intended as a humane way to streamline the agency’s growing caseloads, though critics claim it has led to the unnecessary surveillance of large swaths of migrants who would otherwise be released.

Migrants forced to “participate” in the program undergo near constant monitoring. Those so-called participants, according to the documents, “check-in” at least once per day with the Trust Stamp’s facial recognition feature used to verify that the individual is in the same location as their phone. In the background, the app engages in “passive tracking” of the participant’s geolocation. As part of the contract, Trust Stamp provides ICE with an information dashboard which grants ICE agents the ability to “see current location, three days location data, access to historical location data and status of the participant.” If facial recognition verification attempts fail, the app will alert the ICE case manager and save a video of the failed registration attempts for review.

Activists and lawmakers have spoken out against ICE’s Alternatives to Detention policy claiming it’s overused and places undo invasions of privacy on migrants. In an interview with Gizmodo, Surveillance Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Chan criticised ICE’s use of surveillance tools as unnecessary and counterproductive, particularly during a time of increased migrants fleeing war.

“When people come to the U.S. fleeing violence, they should get support, not digital shackles,” Fox Chan said. “At a moment when the American people want to do anything they can to support Ukrainian refugees, it’s outrageous that ICE is responding with expanded surveillance.”

ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project Senior Staff Attorney Carmen G. Iguina Gonzalez meanwhile called into question ICE’s decision to provide migrant biometric data to a private company they see as offering little public accountability.

“Immigrants awaiting their court dates do not need invasive surveillance technology to compel them to show up,” Gonzalez told Gizmodo. “Moreover, biometric surveillance has historically been used to harass and tear apart communities of colour throughout the country. Contracts like these don’t facilitate true alternatives to detention, they just make the scope of detention limitless by creating digital prisons.”

The contract renewal comes as the U.S. is experiencing a 22-year high in border crossings. In March, Customs and Border Patrol reportedly claimed it encountered 221,303 migrants along the southwest border. The DHS, Trust Stamp contract cited that uptick in crossings in its purpose statement, saying the U.S. is, “currently facing an unusual and compelling urgency,” that’s strained ICE’s capabilities.

Despite this swelling of individuals at the border, President Joe Biden recently proposed cutting more than 25% of bed capacity at immigration detention facilities in his most recent budget proposal. That slashing of physical space could make services like Trust Stamps an even more common element of the U.S. government’s immigration response.

Gizmodo reached out to both ICE and Trust Stamp for comment but hasn’t heard back.

Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty ImagesPhoto: Spencer Platt, Getty Images

In February, a group of 25 Democratic lawmakers led by Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Head, Alejandro Mayorkas, urging him to reduce the number of immigrants enrolled in the program. The letter claims ICE uses the program to monitor and surveil a growing number of migrants who otherwise would have been released and slammed the agency for failing to accomplish its goal of reducing the number of immigrants in detention.

“ICE cannot reasonably call ISAP an ‘alternative to detention’ if the program effectively subjects more immigrants to the agency’s supervision while it simultaneously expands format detention,” the letter reads. Tlaib, meanwhile, in a statement said she believes the U.S. needs to, “ move away from policies that unnecessarily detain immigrants en mass — policies that only exist to support narratives of race-baiting folks and enrich the private prison, detention and surveillance industrial complex corporations.”

More recently, this a month a group of rights groups, including Community Justice Exchange, Just Futures Law, and Mijente field a lawsuit against DHS seeking more information about the ISAP program in light of swelling enrollment figures

“Electronic monitoring is not an alternative to detention — it is a technological extension,” the groups wrote in their lawsuit. Speaking with Gizmodo, Fox Chan echoed this sentiment and claimed the $US7.2 ($10) million worth of funds allocated for the Trust Stamps contract would be better allocated to more robust interventions.

“These invasive tools solve a problem we don’t have, while making taxpayers pick up the tab,” Fox Chan said. “We need money for resettlement, not tracking.”