By James Bowen and Josh Joseph
Long Island immigrant advocates expressed concern about an upsurge in phone surveillance technology use, only a week before Mass. Sen. Edward Markey is expected to receive answers about a recently revealed government contract with Venntel, a telecom firm that collects location data for use in deportations.
Since 2017, the Department of Homeland Security has bought access to Venntel’s database of cellphone location data and is using it to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in deporting undocumented immigrants, according to a Feb. 7 report in The Wall Street Journal. The data is collected through advertisements and third-party apps and folded into a system that can pinpoint the locations of individual smartphones over time.
“I think it’s not only unfair, but immoral… It’s persecution more than anything,” Gerardo Romo, a minister at Saint David’s Church in Riverhead, said. Romo, who works with the Rural & Migrant Ministry, believes the tracking of undocumented immigrants has been happening for decades. “It’s just the technology of today that makes [surveillance] easier than ever,” he said.
On Long Island, undocumented immigrants are alarmed but not surprised by this emerging technology. Outside a CVS in Huntington, one undocumented day-laborer from El Salvador explained why he’s avoided mobile devices in his 20 years in the United States.
“I don’t carry a phone because they say those who do get tracked,” the 55-year-old Huntington resident said. “Here many people have run-ins with the law. Whether they have papers or not, if ICE wants to deport them, they will.”
The worker is one of about 80,000 undocumented immigrants on Long Island, according to data from the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead. Their vulnerability to surveillance is compounded by how selective the citizenship process has become under the Trump administration. This week, the DHS imposed new income restrictions for legal immigration, part of a new public charge rule that went into effect on February 24.
“These rules seek… to wholly transform the United States’ long standing family-based immigration system, which allows all immigrants to seek a new and better life in the United States regardless of their means, into a system that favors the wealthy and discriminates against people of color,” CARECEN New York, a refugee center and advocacy group, said in a Dec. 19 press release. “These radical proposed changes violate the immigration statutes, and the Constitution.” For over 30 years, CARECEN has fought for the rights of undocumented immigrants in Long Island. In December, it sued the Trump administration over the public charge rule.
Now that location data is automating an already-politicized immigration process, advocates are raising ethical questions. But some experts dismiss the novelty of even the tracking technology.
“Venntel is simply one of many companies providing one type of information to companies… and to various government agencies, not necessarily in the United States,” Stephen E. Arnold, a veteran technology analyst and blogger, said. “The only reason it’s hot now is that you see kids in cages with no parents, and you have a president who is essentially a media entity, and you put those two things together and you can go raise psychological havoc.”
To fight the encroachment of surveillance technology, some, like Sen. Markey, turn to the 4th Amendment. In the 2018 landmark Supreme Court case Carpenter v. US, the court ruled that cell tower location information fell under the amendment’s search and seizure protections, and declared such unwarranted surveillance unconstitutional. But that decision only applied to specific kinds of data, gathered by law enforcement from service providers. Venntel’s broader data, sourced from a variety of apps, is still an open legal question.
“I think the solution is legislation, more so, because [not carrying a phone] is a temporary remedy,” Romo said. “Sooner or later there will be another technology to track people.”
Currently, Utah’s sweeping privacy law makes it the only state to require a warrant for many types of digital information. But nationally, these legislative goals may require a political shift beyond the bounds of the current administration, leading some to question a focused legal approach.
“To say that we’re going to fix this by legislation, which is what some nonprofits say, is probably not accurate,” Ken Montenegro, a lawyer, technologist and anti-surveillance activist, said. “I think there needs to be a lot more organizing and a lot more public awareness around what is happening because I think then new, innovative ways to address this issue can come up.”
Protection against surveillance from companies like Venntel has not yet solidified in New York. The state’s latest data privacy legislation, called the Stop Hacking and Improve Electronic Data Security (SHIELD) Act, will go into effect on March 21. The law will protect New Yorkers from data breaches, but leaves location data as a legal gray area.