Cambridge Analytica may have had access to the personal information of tens of millions of unwitting Americans, but a genuine debate has emerged about whether the company had the sophistication to put that data effectively to use on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
But one other organization that has ready access to Facebook’s trove of personal data has a much better track record of using such information effectively: Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE, the federal agency tasked with Trump’s program of mass deportation, uses backend Facebook data to locate and track immigrants that it is working to round up, according to a string of emails and documents obtained by The Intercept through a public records request. The hunt for one particular immigrant in New Mexico provides a rare window into how ICE agents use social media and powerful data analytics tools to find suspects.
In February and March of 2017, several ICE agents were in communication with a detective from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to find information about a particular person. They were ultimately able to obtain backend Facebook data revealing a log of when the account was accessed and the IP addresses corresponding to each login. Lea Whitis, an agent with Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of ICE, emailed the team a “Facebook Business Record” revealing the suspect’s phone number and the locations of each login into his account during a date range.
Law enforcement agents routinely use bank, telephone, and internet records for investigations, but the extent to which ICE uses social media is not well known.
One of the agents involved in the hunt responded that they could combine the data with “IP address information back from T-Mobile.” Another agent chimed in to say that the agency had sent the phone company an expedited summons for information.
“I am going to see if our Palantir guy is here to dump the Western Union info in there since I know there is a way to triangulate the area he’s sending money from and narrow down time of day etc,” responded Jen Miller, an ICE agent on the email thread.
Palantir is a controversial data analytics firm co-founded by billionaire investor Peter Thiel. The company, which does business with the military and major intelligence agencies, has contracted with ICE since 2014. As journalist Spencer Woodman reported last year, the company developed a special system for ICE to access a vast “ecosystem” of data to facilitate immigration officials in both discovering targets and then creating and administering cases against them.