ICE Surveillance Technology Spending Report

Our research reveals U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spent over half a billion federal taxpayer dollars during the Trump presidency on contracts with private companies for surveillance technology.
Protests against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) surveillance

UPDATED 30 April to include comparison of Biden and Trump’s surveillance tech spend along with their overall record on immigration over their respective first 100 days in office.

Key Findings

  • $523.1 million: spent by ICE during the Trump presidency on surveillance-related technology and services, with the following breakdown:
    • Data mining: $230.2 million
    • Wiretaps: $193.4 million
    • Audio/visual surveillance: $34.8 million
    • Digital forensics: $30.5 million
    • Interception equipment: $24 million
    • Digital tracking: $5.9 million
    • Biometrics: $4.2 million
  • MVM Inc: earned the most over the period ($103.7M), followed by Palantir ($88.9M) and Thomson Reuters Group ($40.9M)
  • 429 surveillance contracts active between ICE and private companies over the period
  • First 100 days: Biden spent $5.5M on new surveillance tech contracts over the period compared to $13.4M for Trump. Biden spent a further $23.4M paying out Trump-era contracts.

Introduction

Donald Trump’s aggressively anti-immigrant rhetoric was a touchstone of his 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and it translated into federal government policy from the moment he took office the following year.

Trump promised that as many as 3 million undocumented migrants around the country would be immediately deported before he was even sworn-in.

His ambitious plans to secure the border with Mexico, including building a wall to keep out immigrants, meant that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had to look for ways to do more without significantly increasing their budget.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into expanding ICE’s surveillance capabilities, and data mining in particular, to help it identify as many targets as possible for deportation, regardless of their criminality or otherwise.

With Trump’s term now over and pressure on his successor President Joe Biden to set a different course for the next four years, we have analyzed public finance data to create a comprehensive overview of ICE spending on surveillance technology and services under the previous administration.

During Trump’s White House tenure, ICE spent over half a billion dollars on contracts with private companies to gain access to vast commercial databases of personal information, to stockpile surveillance hardware and to translate countless hours of secretly-recorded conversations gathered via wiretaps.

It will be no simple task to rein in an agency that became radicalized under Trump.

After all, the inauguration of a new president does not mean millions of dollars of recently-acquired surveillance equipment will be immediately mothballed. Nor does it render null and void the 77 ongoing ICE surveillance contracts, some not due to end until 2024 or beyond and worth $240 million in total.

This pivot to surveillance raises many concerns.

It tramples over Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

The cruel irony is that much of this surveillance has simply made it easier to go after softer targets.

Many of ICE’s expensive data mining tools, for example, are most effective at picking up the digital paper trail left by the most otherwise law-abiding undocumented migrants, i.e. those who start businesses and buy homes, pay their taxes, apply for driver’s licenses, and send their kids to school.

Social media analytics also makes it easier to scoop up the “collaterals”, or immigrants who are not the original targets but are swept up during enforcement actions, that ICE agents were suddenly instructed to go after from day one of the Trump presidency.

Rather than keeping Americans safe from violent criminals, ICE’s tactics under the Trump crackdown ripped families apart and left communities shaken by the disappearance of friends and neighbors.

“The Trump administration’s stated policy [was] to target virtually any unauthorized immigrant – regardless of their length of residence in the U.S. or their social, economic and family ties to the U.S.” – Emily Ryo, Professor of Law and Sociology, USC.

This policy was a direct repudiation of the Obama administration’s second-term strict focus on criminals and recent arrivals over those who had already made a life for themselves and their families in the U.S.

In removing these so-called “handcuffs”, ICE has instead outsourced digital surveillance to private companies with little regulation or oversight, while militarizing its agents with physical surveillance gear more suited to fighting terrorists on foreign soil.

Under Trump, ICE built a machine to routinely pry into individuals’ personal lives at an industrial scale, often with the help of third parties, with minimal transparency.

This report shines a light on where taxpayers’ money has been spent in this area and which companies have profited, in the hope of inspiring a fully-informed debate about the future of immigration enforcement in the U.S.

Biden vs Trump First 100 Days

Surveillance Tech

As Biden approaches the symbolic 100-day milestone of his presidency, we’ve compared his administration’s spend on surveillance technology with that of his predecessor to see what has changed.

Trump spent $13.4M on surveillance tech during his first 100 days. This was all on new contracts, as there were no relevant contracts hanging over from the Obama presidency with payments due in this period. This was a consequence of Obama’s much softer stance on immigration overall in his second term.

Biden on the other hand took up the reins from a much more aggressive Trump. He has spent $5.5M in his first 100 days on new surveillance tech contracts. The lion’s share went to LexisNexis ($3.3M) for a contract signed in February for an investigative database that was put out to tender in November under Trump. Other beneficiaries included companies identified elsewhere in this report:

  • Cellebrite (Digital forensics – $0.6M)
  • Giant Oak (Data mining – $0.3M)
  • Griffeye (Digital forensics – $85K)

Biden spent a further $23.4M paying out Trump-era contracts over the same period. The biggest beneficiary was The Kace Company, who received $14M for wiretap translation work. Other major recipients included:

  • Talton (Data mining – $3.1M)
  • Palantir (Data mining – $1.99M)
  • DTC Communications (Digital tracking – $1.5M)
  • Thomson Reuters (Data mining – $1.8M)

For more detailed findings, see our Biden First 100 Days and Trump First 100 Days datasheets.

Immigration Record

We also compared Biden’s record on immigration over his first 100 days with that of his predecessor. While Biden has done much to roll back the most aggressively anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration, steps to dismantle its expensive surveillance apparatus are conspicuous by their absence.

The following table compares Biden and Trump’s presidential actions in relation to immigration over their respective first 100 days in office, along with any high-profile consequences of those actions.

Surveillance Tech Contracts by Category

The following table breaks down by category the total surveillance contract payments from ICE during the Trump presidency, ie Jan 2017-21.

Click on the category names for more information about that category of surveillance contract.

All amounts are in USD.

By Company

The following table shows the top 20 companies by total earnings from surveillance-related contracts with ICE during the Trump presidency, ie Jan 2017-21.

To allow for better visibility of total earnings, parent companies and their subsidiaries have been combined into a single entry in the table under the parent company name. See individual footnotes where relevant for more information about specific companies.

All amounts are in USD. Where there is more than one contract type, the highest value category has been indicated. For more information about categorization of contracts, see research methodology and disclaimer.

[1] The entry for “Palantir Technologies Inc” includes Palantir USG, Inc.

[2] The entry for “Thomson Reuters Group” comprises West Publishing Corporation and Thomson Reuters Special Services LLC

[3] The entry for “DTC Communications, Inc.” includes Corp Ten International

[4] The entry for “Cellebrite USA Corp” includes Cellebrite Inc.

To see the full list of companies included in this report, view this Google Sheet.

The following sections explore some of the most controversial examples of surveillance tech that ICE paid for over the Trump presidential term.

Use the links to quickly jump to each category:

  1. Data mining
  2. Wiretaps
  3. Audio/visual surveillance
  4. Digital forensics
  5. Interception equipment
  6. Digital tracking
  7. Biometrics

Data Mining

The data mining category of contracts includes access to big data platforms and commercial databases, social media analytics, data broker services and facial recognition.

Back to By Category table

Palantir – FALCON, ICM

Palantir pocketed $89 million from its data mining contracts with ICE over the four years Trump was president. These contracts related to two products: FALCON, which is a customized version of the Gotham platform used by the police and other law enforcement agencies, and the ICM (Investigating Case Management) system.

Access to FALCON/Gotham cost ICE $38 million over the period and allowed agents “with almost no information about a person of interest [to] instantly know extremely intimate details about their lives,” according to reports that revealed secret support documentation for the platform.

Using the platform, all an ICE agent needs is an individual’s name that’s associated with a license plate in order to generate a complete account of where that person has driven over any time period, through the use of automatic license plate reader data.

With just a name, agents can also find a person’s email address, phone numbers, current and previous addresses, bank accounts, social security number(s), business relationships, family relationships, and license information like height, weight, and eye color, as long as it’s in the agency’s database.

They can can also map out that person’s family members, and potentially also find the above information about them.

The ICM is a massive centralized data ecosystem funded initially by a $41 million contract in 2014 that helps ICE identify targets for detention and deportation. Controversially, it was used during a 2017 operation to target families of migrant children as part of Trump’s policy of separating families of undocumented immigrants.

Palantir CEO Alex Karp on his company’s work for ICE

ICE paid Palantir over $50 million for ICM licenses, hosting, helpdesk, and operations and management support during the Trump administration, with almost $14 million of that coming in 2020 alone.

Thomson Reuters – CLEAR

The Consolidated Lead Evaluation and Reporting (CLEAR) system is a “powerful research platform that delivers a vast collection of public and proprietary records”, according to Thomson Reuters, the corporation that owns it.

ICE paid the company at least $25 million over the Trump presidency via its West Publishing subsidiary for access to phone records, consumer and credit bureau data, healthcare provider content, utilities data, DMV records, World-Check listing, business data, property records, fishing licenses, social media posts and internet chatrooms, and “live access to more than 7 billion license plate detections”.

The use of license plate data by ICE agents has been particularly controversial, after details first emerged of the agency’s contract with Vigilant Solutions in 2017.

The Vigilant database has since been folded into CLEAR. According to our research, the 2017 Vigilant contract appears to have been transfered to Thomson Reuters, as the original contract award ID matches the current entry that references Thomson Reuters subsidiary West Publishing Corporation.

The Enforcement and Removal Operations arm of ICE has called Thomson Reuters’ services “mission critical,” according to the New York Times.

ICE paid Thomson Reuters companies over $40M for data-related services during Trump’s time in office.

Location Data

ICE is one of several federal agencies paying Babel Street, a firm previously known for its social media scanning platform, for a top-secret new tool called Locate X that uses data from popular mobile apps to track the movement of people’s cell phones, Protocol has reported.

It was also reported that Babel Street even stipulated in federal contracts that the existence of Locate X must be kept secret.

We found records of payments to Babel Street worth $784,000 over the period that were generically described as “data subscription services”. There were also payments of $1.1 million to another firm, Thundercat Technology, for provision of “Babel Street”.

ICE also paid $330,000 to data broker Venntel for “data services” and “computer software”. Venntel obtains its location data from a diverse range of mobile apps that include games, weather, and e-commerce, and then sells access to a database of cellphone movements, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Social Media Analytics

ICE began gathering social media data on immigrants in earnest during the first year of the Trump presidency.

One firm in particular has profited significantly from this new digital surveillance strategy. ICE paid Giant Oak, which was founded by Gary Shiffman, the former chief of staff of ICE’s sister agency Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), nearly $10 million over the period for access to its GOST tool.

GOST allows users to trawl social media, government databases and other public data sources to quickly generate “a dossier on each individual with everything you need to know, such as web page images and keywords already highlighted”.

Designed to combat “global terrorism, transnational criminal organizations, human trafficking and money laundering”, GOST is instead being used to identify people who have overstayed their visas.

It also works at scale: GOST allows ICE agents to prioritize targets by ranking thousands of people at once by relevance, according to Shiffman.

Cyber intelligence firm ShadowDragon boasts that its SocialNet tool can map out individuals’ “identities, correlations, networks of associates and available geographical information in just minutes”.

ICE paid technology consultant C&C International almost $289,000 in 2020 for access to SocialNet. With it, ICE now has the ability to mine huge amounts data from over 65 social media platforms and near-instantly identify anyone who’s ever been associated with an individual suspected of breaching immigration rules, along with their movements.

Visa Lifecyle Vetting Initiative (VLVI)

Originally known as the Extreme Vetting Initiative, with ambitions to be powered by machine learning, the rebranded VLVI lowered its sights to hiring contractors to review individuals’ social media. The contract was officially awarded to SRA International (now CSRA Inc., owned by General Dynamics) in 2019 after an unsuccessful legal challenge from two other big data firms.

The VLVI is a joint scheme between ICE, the CBP, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

It has expanded in scope from collecting social media information from travelers entering the U.S. to those applying for asylum and for immigrant benefits, including any changes to those benefits. The Brennan Center estimated that this would require 33 million people a year to provide social media details for the past five years.

ICE has paid CSRA over $31 million to date of the $113 million contract.

Facial Recognition

Dubbed the world’s scariest facial recognition company, Clearview AI matches photos of unknown people to their online images, allowing law enforcement to identify them.

ICE is among more than 600 law enforcement agencies to start using the highly controversial tool since 2019, paying the start-up $224,000 for “Clearview licenses” in August 2020.

Clearview works by matching photos against its vast database of over 3 billion images scraped from social media and other online sources. Crucially, it not only features images an individual may have uploaded themselves but those taken by others and potentially published without consent. The database also contains images that are no longer online or have since been made private.

Wiretaps

This category includes contracts related to the interception of wire, oral and electronic communications, including calls, text messages, and emails, whenever ICE is granted a judicial order under Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Acts of 1968.

Back to By Category table

Title III Digital Collection System

ICE has paid JSI Telecom over $14 million for its “Title III digital collection system” since Trump entered the White House. The agency paid the US-based surveillance and analytics firm a further $10 million for “operational and maintenance” support for its wiretapping tools.

The scope for granting judicial orders for the wiretaps facilitated by this system is wide, and includes anyone suspected of hiding undocumented migrants from ICE.

The fear is that these orders could be used “to monitor and criminalize millions of Americans,” such as those who support upholding immigrants’ rights, according to Privacy International.

JSI Telecom also has surveillance contracts with the FBI and DEA.

Translation services

A hidden cost of ICE’s reliance on wiretaps is for associated transcription and translation services. A staggering $169 million was paid to companies providing this service during the Trump presidency so that agents could understand and make use of the material gathered under Title III.

MVM Inc. was the single largest beneficiary, thanks to payments of over $103 million over the four-year period.

The US-based private security contractor, which provides other security services as well as translation, was also paid almost $350 million for transporting unaccompanied children during the same time period. It was reportedly investigated for holding children overnight in office buildings in Arizona.

MVM was also recently forced to pay out $1.6 million after being sued for workplace discrimination. “According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, government contractor MVM engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against Africans based on their national origin and retaliated against employees for complaining,” according to reports.

Audio-Visual Surveillance

This category includes contracts for equipment to secretly film people and record their conversations.

Back to By Category table

Drones

ICE reportedly began looking at incorporating drones into their work in 2018. This is borne out by our research, which shows the agency paid $64,000 in July of that year to Hoverfly Technologies Inc for “unmanned aircraft”, specifically a “small aircraft system for testing and evaluation”.

Hoverfly boasts on its website that its drones offer “secure video and data communications” for “sensitive operations”, while their open API allows for easy integration with existing video and security systems.

The agency doubled down on unmanned aircraft the following year, paying $43,000 to Physical Sciences Inc (PSI) for an “aerial system” and $147,000 to W.S. Darley & Co. for an “aerial vehicle”.

Based on the product descriptions on the PSI website, ICE most likely bought the InstantEye, a “high-performance, low-cost aerial system that can be hand-launched, flown and hand-recovered by a single person in any weather.”

Darley, which primarily supplies gear to first responders, offers a range of drones, including four models intended for law enforcement. Its top-of-the-line drone offers “advanced AI capabilities” and a nine-mile range.

Based on expenditure to date, it appears that ICE’s use of drones remains in its infancy. Civil liberties advocates however have sounded the alarm over the privacy risks posed by combining the use of drones with other technology identified in this report, such as license plate readers and facial recognition.

“As technology becomes more advanced, and especially as things like facial recognition technology are adapted to drones, you wind up with situations where you can literally be conducting individualized surveillance on dozens if not more people—potentially hundreds of people at any given time,” – Robyn Greene, New America’s Open Technology Institute.

Covert Surveillance Equipment

The DTC Communications Inc. group of companies, which includes British firm Domo Tactical Communications (DTC) Ltd and Corp Ten International, has pocketed nearly $18.6 million during Trump’s presidential term for multiple surveillance tech contracts with ICE.

While the publicly-available contract descriptions such as “covert electronic surveillance equipment” and “concealed IP video kit” are too generic to determine which specific products ICE actually purchased, the overall nature of the technology acquired by the agency is clear.

Covert surveillance equipment specs brochure screengrab

Screengrab for DTC Communications video surveillance hardware brochure.

The DTC Communications video surveillance hardware brochure includes video transmitters intended for “covert concealments” or drones, along with video receivers suitable for monitoring surveillance footage from a tactical vehicle, or from distant command and control centers.

Surveillance Robots

ICE has spent nearly $300,000 buying throwable robots designed and manufactured by Minnesota company ReconRobotics.

The micro-robots were designed for use in military scenarios to be thrown in hard-to-reach places in order to surveil targets without getting too close. While this is no doubt beneficial in theatres of war or by counter-terrorist forces, it’s arguably rather extreme to use these robots to enforce immigration policy.

Hidden Streetlight Cameras

ICE paid over $28,000 in 2018 to a company called Cowboy Streetlight Concealments LLC for “surveillance cameras”, “camera and box” and “pole camera”.

Christie Crawford, who owns the company with her husband, a Houston police officer, reportedly said, “We do streetlight concealments and camera enclosures. Basically, there’s businesses out there that will build concealments for the government and that’s what we do. They specify what’s best for them, and we make it.”

It’s unclear whether ICE purchased any other similar equipment over the period.

Interception Equipment

This category includes contracts for equipment used to intercept phone calls and other communications and any support software or services.

Back to By Category table

IMSI Catchers (Stingray)

IMSI catchers are used to spoof cell phone towers in order to intercept voice calls and SMS messages. ICE spent $4.8 million on a contract with Harris Corporation, which manufactures the Stingray, a device so notorious that it has become the generic name for IMSI catchers.

Civil liberties group the ACLU recently discovered via Freedom of Information requests that ICE has upgraded its IMSI catchers from the Stingray II to the “Crossbow”, a device not previously known to the public.

Another firm included in this report, DTC Communications, also sells IMSI catcher tech. However, it’s unclear whether they are included in their current surveillance contracts.

Pen-Link

ICE paid surveillance company Pen-Link over $11.7 million over the course of the Trump presidency. Almost of all that was from a contract for “telecommunications analysis and intercept software”.

Pen-Link boasts on its website that its PXL software can “collect, analyze, and export large volumes of social media, email, and other internet communications data”, along with “real-time” wiretaps.

It also offers a mobile product called PenPoint that offers “PLX capabilities away from the wire room”.

“Tell the story of your targets’ patterns of life by stepping through their location histories and predict future movements with customizable mapping features.

“Receive real-time lat/long notifications for new calls and pings and get where you need to be with and in-app navigation to your targets most recent locations,” – Pen-Link website.

Digital Forensics

This category includes contracts with firms that provide tools to break into password-protected smartphones and other electronic devices and recover data.

Back to By Category table

Mobile Data Extraction

Cellebrite’s UFED (Universal Forensic Extractions Devices) mobile data extraction tool, one of many on the market, allows authorities to “gain access to 3rd party app data, chat conversations, downloaded emails and email attachments, deleted content and more,” according to their website.

ICE paid the Israeli company and its subsidiaries over $14 million under Trump for UFED licenses and digital forensic workstations that give its agents the ability to perform digital stop and searches on suspected visa violators.

They also paid over $1 million to Grayshift for its tools to access locked mobile devices.

Forensic Explorer

Forensic Explorer is software created by digital forensics firm GetData that allows users to investigate hard drives for electronic evidence. The software can recover deleted and hidden files and also clone drive data for later investigation without the device itself present.

ICE paid GetData almost half a million dollars in 2018 for access to the tool.

Digital Tracking

This category includes contracts for equipment used to track people’s physical locations using digital tools.

Back to By Category table

GPS Trackers

ICE spent almost $6 million on GPS tracking equipment during the Trump presidency. Contractors such as CovertTrack describe their products as “innovative, specialized tools for GPS tracking, bait vehicles, audio surveillance, and video surveillance” but are cagey about publicly revealing any information about specific devices.

However, reports reveal that ICE uses GPS to track ankle monitors fitted to undocumented immigrants released from detention in order to coordinate raids on their employers.

It’s unclear based on publicly available information whether ICE’s contracts with companies like Corp Ten International for “satellite and cellular services” and “surveillance equipment” can be used to track individuals via the GPS in their smartphones. In such cases, however, it can be possible to evade detection with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) mobile app that spoofs GPS.

Biometrics

This category includes contracts for devices used to collect biometric data and for all associated software and support services.

Back to By Category table

Multimodal biometric hardware, which captures fingerprint, iris and even facial scans has been touted as key to helping ICE, “leverage the rapid capture of biometrics by officers and agents in the field.”

ICE agents use these pocket-sized devices during street stops and raids to instantly capture biometric data, cross-reference it with and add it to expansive government biometric databases. The agency’s own data reveals that the “match” rate averages at only around 55%, suggesting that biometric data is being collected indiscriminately almost half the time.

This type of biometric technology, initially developed as rugged devices for military use, has drawn wide criticism and privacy concerns for adding to the militarization and increased automation of civilian surveillance.

Fingerprint Collection

Among the suppliers of biometric technology to ICE is Government Acquisitions Inc. which received $1.3 million largely for supplying Neoscan 45 fingerprint collection devices, which are manufactured by NEC Corporation.

Northrop Grumman also received $2.2 million from ICE for “BioSled” devices, rugged biometric handhelds “designed to meet strict Department of Defense requirements for use in tactical environments”, according to the aerospace and defense firm’s website.

Iris Scanners

ICE also spent nearly $375,000 on “biometrics equipment” and accompanying software from InCadence. The firm sells fingerprint and iris scanners. It also recently won a conract to supply biometric devices to the U.S. Marines for use on the battlefield.

Methodology

We reviewed all U.S Immigration and Enforcement (ICE) contracts available on usaspending.gov that had transactions dated during the Trump presidency, i.e between January 20 2017 and January 20 2021.

We included all contracts relating to surveillance in its various forms, along with intrusive uses of personal data.

We categorized these contracts as accurately as possible based on the information available in the public domain, using our own categories of “data mining”, “wiretaps”, “audio/visual surveillance”, “digital forensics”, “interception equipment”, “digital tracking” and “biometrics”.

Dollar amounts used throughout the report relate to payments made during the period, rather than the total value of an award.

Access full list of companies featured in this report via a Google Sheet.


Disclaimer

All companies named in this report have been included in good faith based on the available public information. Our categorization of provision goods or services under contract to U.S. Immigrations Enforcement (ICE) that relate to surveillance or impact the privacy of individuals and their personal data is on the same basis. This report does not suggest any impropriety on the part of the companies listed nor of ICE.

Main image: Protesters against the tactics and actions of ICE demonstrate and march from the steps of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, New York City which is declared to be a Sanctuary City, on February 16 2020. Credit: David Grossman / Alamy.

Additional research by Christine O’Donnell

The authors of all our investigations abide by the journalists’ code of conduct.