The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are rapidly expanding local law enforcement access to mobile biometrics devices designed for use in war zones. The disturbing story is revealed in detail by new documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Cardozo Immigration Justice Clinic.

“Secure Communities” Moves Out of the Jails and Onto the Streets

The documents show that the FBI is working with DHS to expand the mobile biometric capability of state and local law enforcement—including providing the agencies with mobile access to immigration status information. That means that today, in many parts of the country, police can check a person’s immigration status without even booking him or her in the station. In effect, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) discredited “Secure Communities” deportation program – responsible for record-breaking deportation levels, with over one million people deported in the last four years–has moved out of the jails and on to the streets.

The FOIA documents reveal for the first time the concerns of DHS privacy officers that this expanded domestic use of mobile biometrics devices may lead to “profiling” and other “misuse of the information provided.”[1]

The documents also reveal that in May 2012, the FBI worked with ICE to add the “Immigration Violators File” to the Repository for Individuals of Special Concern.[2] “RISC” was designed to let local police remotely run fingerprints through databases of allegedly “high risk” individuals, including “suspected terrorists,” individuals in sex offender registries, and individuals with open warrants.[3] With the addition of the Immigration Violators File, the RISC now also provides information about people who have overstayed deportation orders—including people deported “in absentia” without notice—and people who failed to register for the abusive NSEERS program.

In other words, the FBI promoted RISC among local police as a repository of “the worst of the worst.” And now, it has populated RISC with tens of thousands of individuals whose only offense is a civil immigration violation. The irony is reminiscent of the roll out of “Secure Communities”—sold to local police as a means to deport individuals convicted of serious and violent offenses, the program has become infamous for deporting tens of thousands of individuals whose worst offense was a traffic violation.

In the future, the documents show, ICE intends to continue “to facilitate access to biometric information contained in the [immigration enforcement] system for State, Local; and Tribal LE access to IDENT via their mobile fingerprint capture devices in a “Pre-arrest scenario.”[4]

These mobile devices might well be dubbed “electronic Arpaios.” Their potential to entangle local police in immigration enforcement to the detriment of civil rights and civil liberties is daunting. Even DHS’s own privacy officers recognize the danger. [5] But it seems ICE has learned nothing from its disastrous Secure Communities program. Instead of reforming, it continues to expand its enforcement dragnet. Every day, over 1,000 people are deported. How many more will be affected as police take “Secure Communities” out of the jails and into the streets?

The Backstory:  Mobile Biometrics Collection in Iraq and Afghanistan

All this didn’t just start yesterday. The current domestic mobile biometrics collection initiative has its roots in U.S. activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s where the FBI first deployed its “Quick Capture Platform,” which allowed agents to collect biometric data—fingerprints, retina scans, photographs, etc.— using mobile devices, then instantly search FBI and DHS databases for matches. By 2010, the U.S. had gathered information from almost seven percent of Iraq’s population of 29 million.[6]

From Iraq to the Superbowl

But, as described in detail in these newly disclosed documents, the mobile biometrics collection binge didn’t stop in Iraq. Instead, in a classic display of mission creep, the FBI’s surveillance programs promptly made the leap from war zones to the Superbowl.

Around 2009, the FBI decided to draw from its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and expand a mobile biometrics initiative at home. The stated purpose was to support domestic criminal investigations and “security screening”—including  “screening of individuals attending sporting (Superbowl) and other events.”[7]

To support the initiative, the FBI asked DHS to provide its agents with mobile access to every single immigration database.[8] Immigration status information, the FBI argued, would increase agents’ “traction capability” during interviews.[9]

DHS granted the permission reluctantly. Internally, it worried that the ask was “a fundamental shift away from [the FBI’s] original request for us to support [Hostage Rescue] teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.” [10]

By September 2010, FBI agents in the field were granted full access to all immigration status information in DHS records.[11]  From there, the expansion to state and local police—and the dissemination of “electronic Arpaios”—was only a stones throw away.

[1] ICE Memo, “ICE Issue Paper/Talking Points for Mobile Fingerprint Capture Devices for State, Local, And Tribal (SLT) Law Enforcement Access To Biometric Law Enforcement (LE) Information” (undated). ICE2010FOIA2674.292909.

            [2] Email chain, “Fwd: RISC and IVF,” April 3, 2012. ICE 2010FOIA2674.292920.

            [3] See FBI, Repository for Individuals of Special Concern, at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/fingerprints_biometrics/ngi/repository-for-individuals-of-special-concern-risc

            [4] ICE, Issue Paper/Talking Points for Mobile Fingerprint Capture Devices for State, Local, and Tribal (SLT) Law Enforcement Access to Biometric Law Enforcement (LE) Information. ICE 2010FOIA2674.292909.

[5] ICE, “ICE Issue Paper/Talking Points for Mobile Fingerprint Capture Devices for State, Local, And Tribal (SLT) Law Enforcement Access To Biometric Law Enforcement (LE) Information”. ICE2010FOIA2674.292909.

            [6] Farah Stockman, Worries about US data on Iraqis, The Boston Globe, Aug. 31, 2010, available at http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2010/08/31/questions_arise_about_use_of_data_gathered_in_iraq_war/

            [7] FBI Memo on FBI Mobile and Full Search of the Criminal Master File (CMF) Repository (6/18/2010). FBI-SC-STIP-0839; Email chain involving US-VISIT and CJIS staff, “FBI Mobile Phase II” (11/6/2009 to 12/10/2010). DHS 114-126.

            [8] Email chain involving US-VISIT and CJIS staff, “FBI Mobile Phase II” (11/6/2009 to 12/10/2010). DHS 114-126.

            [9] Email chain “FBI Mobile Phase II—Full IDENT Response” (3/1/2010). FBI-SC-STIP-0796.

            [10] Email chain involving US-VISIT and CJIS staff, “FBI Mobile Phase II” (11/6/2009 to 12/10/2010). Bates: DHS 114-126.

            [11] Second Quarter Briefing on Unique Identity, House and Senate Appropriations Committees, Nov. 10, 2010. Bates: FBI-SC-STIP-0919.

Photo by CPOA under Creative Commons license