Records show ICE uses LexisNexis to check millions, far more than previously thought

·4 min read

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been using LexisNexis since it parted ways with its previous data broker partner back in 2021. But far from using the platform strictly for checking for those with "serious criminal backgrounds," the agency is performing searches in the millions, statistics obtained by watchdog organizations suggest.

A new report from Just Futures Law and Mijente collates information acquired via Freedom of Information Act requests, and the documents they received showed that ICE performed no less than 1.2 million searches over a 7-month period. The groups shared this information with the Intercept, which published its own report this morning as part of a series on the relatively new data collaboration.

While it's perfectly understandable that an agency concerned with investigating people for immigration purposes would want to have access to a tool like LexisNexis's Accurint Virtual Crime Center, the scale and purpose of how it uses this capability are also relevant.

In 2021, LexisNexis stated that ICE would be using its services strictly for investigating people associated with serious crimes, but that it would not be used "to remove individuals from the United States unless they pose a serious threat to public safety."

Today the company states on its FAQ page for the contract that "Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not use the technology to track individuals that may have committed minor offenses. It is strictly used for identifying individuals with serious criminal backgrounds." In other words, it is ostensibly used to confirm that an individual does in fact have a real criminal record, something that would be a legal and ordinary barrier to immigration.

This stated purpose seems at odds with the enormous volume of searches being conducted by ICE, far beyond the highest imaginable numbers for serious criminal background checks. It also doesn't square with the fact that nearly a quarter of those 1.2 million queries were performed by the Enforcement and Removal Operations division, which as you might expect is responsible for deportations and raids. Since the data available includes "real time" information like phone use, it's certainly tactically useful for their needs.

Other documents support the idea that far from being a targeted tool for serious offenders, the LexisNexis tools are pitched and used widely by thousands of officers as a dragnet for finding possible deportation targets. (LexisNexis declined to answer any questions, referring me to the FAQ.)

While you should read the (PDF) documents and fact sheet and Sam Biddle's great (as usual) story at the Intercept, one aspect to be dilated on with particular TechCrunch relevance is the agreement LexisNexis enforces upon ICE that the latter will not mention the former publicly.

The agreement quoted by the report goes as follows:

Customer will not name LN or refer to its use of the LN Services in any press releases, advertisements, promotional or marketing materials, or make any other third-party disclosures regarding LN or Customer's use of the LN Services.

It seems clear LexisNexis doesn't want to be publicly associated with the ongoing operations of ICE, despite taking nearly $17 million up front for the contract. Although the company is glad to be a part of the work, it would rather not be in a release saying "thanks to the data-gathering tools from our friends at LexisNexis, we were able to remove dozens of people with non-violent criminal offenses and their families from our country of law and order."

The hypocrisy of wanting to take the money but not the "prestige" of a controversial but lucrative client faces much of tech. GitHub and Microsoft have faced calls to stop working with ICE in particular, while more recently Salesforce and Blackbaud have quietly served the NRA and declined to find any conflict with their supposed dedication to social good.

The problem with the LexisNexis–ICE connection is not simply that one works with the other, but that the data broker enables the government to go beyond its stated remit — and, far from objecting or limiting it, provides seminars on how to do so properly, then issues a gag order so no one knows how effective the service is. As long as this type of contract makes companies more than it costs them, it seems unlikely they'll voluntarily cut off the flow of cash to satisfy anyone's scruples.