#NoTechforICE Campaign Protests Data Vendor Contracts with ICE

#NoTechforICE was started by the national Latinx and Chicanx social justice advocacy group Mijente in 2018, when it became clear that government agencies such as ICE and CBP were purchasing public, private, and commercial data to gather information to aid in the sweeps and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Two companies that have entered into contracts with ICE, LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters—which owns LexisNexis competitor Westlaw—are staples of college and university database subscriptions, and the campaign has caught the attention of academic librarians nationwide.

truck parked on DC street with message:
#NoTechforICE truck parked outside the ALA Annual Conference
Photo by Meredith Schwartz

Library workers attending the American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference in Washington, DC in June may have noticed a truck circling the Walter E. Washington Convention Center emblazoned with the message “CALLING ALL LIBRARIANS: LEXISNEXIS HELPS ICE SURVEIL AND DEPORT IMMIGRANTS” and a QR code that took users to a petition.

Although encounters with the truck—or the flyers handed out by Library Freedom Project (LFP) volunteers—may have been the first time many heard of #NoTechforICE, the anti-surveillance campaign has been keeping a close eye on companies doing business with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for years.

#NoTechforICE was started by the national Latinx and Chicanx social justice advocacy group Mijente in 2018, when it became clear that government agencies such as ICE and CBP were purchasing public, private, and commercial data to gather information to aid in the sweeps and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Two companies that have entered into contracts with ICE, LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters—which owns LexisNexis competitor Westlaw—are staples of college and university database subscriptions, and the campaign has caught the attention of academic librarians nationwide.

 

TARGETING THROUGH TECH

Since Mijente was founded in 2015 to organize against migrant prosecutions and deportations, members have seen the use of technology in the aid of ICE operations steadily increase.

“In the [George W.] Bush years, folks would be rounded up outside of restaurants and grocery stores—you had your IDs checked and people would do raids that way, like workplace targeting,” Mijente spokesperson Joe Rivano Barros told LJ. “But increasingly under Obama and then Trump, it was outside of people’s homes, outside of their kids’ schools, even outside of their banks. And the question was, how did ICE know this?”

“That’s how the campaign started, with questions in the community about information sharing,” explained Mijente National Organizer Cinthya Rodriguez.

Mijente began researching the companies providing data to government agencies, partnering with a range of advocacy organizations nationwide on reports detailing their findings. ICE has entered into contracts with tech companies such as LexisNexis’s parent company RELX, Thomson Reuters, Palantir Technologies, Anduril Industries, Northrop Grumman, Equifax, Microsoft, Salesforce, and many others to buy information geared toward conducting raids and deportations. Amazon Web Services hosts much of the data provided by these and other companies to U.S. agencies. LexisNexis Risk Solutions currently has an $8.3 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security, which could potentially grow to $22.1 million by 2026.

“The tool promotes public safety and is not used to prevent legal immigration,” LexisNexis stated on an information web page provided to LJ, “nor is it used to remove individuals from the United States unless they pose a serious threat to public safety including child trafficking, drug smuggling and other serious criminal activity.” However, in March, a federal judge partially blocked an order from the Biden administration to restrict deportations in such cases.

Mijente’s collaborative research points to “a massive immigration dragnet that pools billions of data points of our personal information from public and commercial sources, private sources, and—as we’re seeing recently—from real-time incarceration data,” said Rodriguez.

LexisNexis’s Accurint services provide large amounts of public and commercial information and tools that allow organizations to extract what they need. This data includes court records, prison booking data, criminal history, Department of Motor Vehicles records—such as driver’s license photos and addresses—utility and cable billing information, and some credit information.

“They boast of having 10,000 different data points on literally hundreds of millions of people,” said Rivano Barros, including data extracted from “your social media, your phone, your vehicle.” According to nonprofit news site The Intercept, ICE searched a database of personal information provided by LexisNexis over 1.2 million times during a seven-month period in 2021.

This data is brokered even in legal sanctuary states that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents—currently California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—and sanctuary cities in states across the country.

According to the LexisNexis statement, this data provides ICE with information for law enforcement investigations. “These investigations include terrorism, national security and public safety cases, narcotics smuggling, organized crime, transnational gang activity, child exploitation, human smuggling and trafficking, illegal exports of controlled technology and weapons, money laundering, financial fraud, cybercrime and intellectual property theft. We entered into this contract understanding that the mission of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Biden Administration is to focus immigration enforcement resources on people with serious criminal backgrounds.”

LexisNexis signed a $16.8 deal with ICE February 25, 2021. However, The Intercept reports that ICE has been using LexisNexis through the National Criminal Analysis and Targeting Center since 2016, well before the Biden administration narrowed ICE’s enforcement focus.

The statement denies that LexisNexis provides ICE with license plate images or facial recognition capabilities, noting that the company “regularly monitors use of its technology by all customers and does regular checks and audits to ensure its services are being used for their intended purpose.”

It adds, “Any suggestion the tool is an instrument to help separate families at the border is false. In fact, it is frequently employed to reunite families and protect innocent people hoping for a better life in this country from criminals who seek to prey on vulnerable individuals.”

 

LIBRARIANS CRITICAL TO THE CAUSE

In addition to its research partnerships, Mijente has begun collaborating with other organizations on actions and protests. Because both LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters are ubiquitous in academic libraries, many librarians and library associations have also become active supporters of Mijente’s cause.

“It’s incredibly important for the library community to play a role in these efforts, because #NoTechforICE raises questions about privacy, about research data, and about human rights,” said Rodriguez. “Librarians can look into what this means for their local communities, but also join a national movement that’s thinking through these questions and thinking through what kind of alternatives librarians can pivot to.”

LFP first got involved with #NoTechforICE through Sarah Lamdan, professor and librarian at the City University of New York School of Law, who has been digging into the connection between ICE and academic vendors for several years; Lamdan and LFP have been working together to examine the privacy policies of legal resource vendors.

When LFP founder Alison Macrina began speaking about the campaign to librarians, she saw that “people were very moved—they were outraged as soon as they heard—but we knew that we needed to have some kind of broader campaign starting with the awareness piece,” she told LJ. “So that’s when we started thinking about what we could do around ALA.”

Along with the policy and advocacy organization Library Futures, LFP joined Mijente to publicize the cause at ALA Annual. The #NoTechforICE truck drove around downtown DC for one day during the conference, while inside and outside the convention center, LFP and Library Futures handed out some 500 flyers with information about the campaign and a link to the petition.

Flyers also included some language for library staff to talk to their LexisNexis reps, direct action that will be covered in more detail in a webinar Macrina has planned for late summer, when the academic school year begins and librarians consider their vendor contracts. “We want to have them prepared with talking points and demands for their reps,” she said. “Also, we’re going to help them to agitate and rally their colleagues around this.” The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA) has expressed interest in collaborating on planned actions.

Once library workers are aware of the connection, Macrina feels, they will rally around the cause. “That was definitely the response that we got at ALA,” she noted. “The overwhelming majority stopped and talked to us, and they were totally mind blown by this. They had no idea that it was happening.”

“Librarians have played a key role in this work,” noted Rodriguez, “alongside law students, shareholders, people in the community that are directly impacted, organizers, and people in other movements.”

 

FURTHER ACTIONS

#NoTechforICE used similar tactics several weeks later at the American Association of Law Libraries Annual Meeting and Conference in Denver in mid-July.

The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Campaign (CIRC), another of Mijente’s partners on the campaign, has been working to enact protections for undocumented individuals in the state for several years. In 2019, CIRC helped pass a bill prohibiting law enforcement from holding people in state jails for ICE, and a bill in 2021 barring state agencies from sharing information with ICE. But CIRC was still getting calls from people asking how ICE was able to track their license plate numbers, courtroom dates, and other information, said CIRC Campaign Manager Siena Mann.

“That’s what led us into this work with Mijente, realizing that data brokers have been the key for ICE for the last couple of years, to both get around the sanctuary policies that we’ve passed in Colorado and also to facilitate the jail systems’ information sharing,” said Mann. Jails may not be allowed to hold immigrants for ICE, but with real-time release information the agency can intercept them as they’re discharged.

During the conference, campaign organizers rented a truck that displayed campaign information, and engaged law librarians in conversation to explain the issue and asking that they sign the petition. Security was unhappy with #NoTechforICE’s presence—LexisNexis was a platinum sponsor of the conference—and after #NoTechforIce volunteers had spoken with some 50 or 60 participants, both inside and outside the venue, they were escorted off the premises and threatened with arrest if they returned, said Mann. They continued to speak with conferencegoers outside, and the truck remained on its route all day.

“AALL leadership was not aware in advance that protesters were going to be speaking to conference attendees and/or driving a van around the premises,” AALL President Beth Adelman told LJ. “We understand that there are many legal research products that are used by legal information professionals for their legal research needs. We are unable to comment on specific products.”

 

MAKING PROGRESS

Severing lucrative ties between data brokers and U.S. agencies is slow work, but a range of information campaigns have advanced the cause. In December 2021, the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange agreed to end the sale of more than 170 million people’s names, home addresses, Social Security numbers, and other information to ICE after pressure from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Last April, the British Columbia General Employees’ Union, a minor shareholder in Thomson Reuters, pushed the company to adopt the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Thomson Reuters agreed to review its contracts for potential human rights violations and has stated that it will release a report later in the summer. Although there is no guarantee that Thomson Reuters will cancel its contracts with ICE, participants in the campaign are hopeful.

In Illinois, Cook County Commissioner Alma E. Anaya introduced a resolution to host a hearing looking into whether ICE contracts with data brokers violate the county’s sanctuary city protections—the first time a legislator has called for an investigation into ICE’s use of data brokers to skirt sanctuary ordinances. The hearing took place on July 27; Mijente will be meeting with the 10 cosponsoring commissioners and the county agencies that presented, as well as those that didn’t, to follow up more substantively. No legislation or subsequent hearing is currently pending.

Librarians in institutions that subscribe to the service should email their LexisNexis customer service reps, suggested Rivano Barros—an email form can be accessed through the link to the petition. “It’s monumental when these companies hear directly from their customers and their trusted base that there are real concerns,” he said. Since the #NoTechforICE campaign began, representatives of several colleges and universities—including Stanford, Harvard, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of California–Berkeley—have publicly protested their institutions’ ties to tech companies that do business with ICE.

Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech), in Kirkland, WA, 11 miles northeast of Seattle, has already opted not to renew its LexisNexis contract for the 2022–23 school year. Librarians first became aware of the issue after an article on the SPARC website, “ Addressing the Alarming Systems of Surveillance Built By Library Vendors,” in April 2021, became a topic of conversation on a regional listserv for community and technical colleges. The issue is an ethical one, but for schools like LWTech, which includes a significant population of immigrant, English as a Second Language (ESL), and first-generation students, it is also a practical concern for many students and their families.

“After some deeper dives into the history of the investigations, we developed a plan to do outreach to faculty who have used the database,” Faculty Librarian and Library Coordinator Greg Bem told LJ.

At the time, the college used academic research tool Nexis Uni, primarily for its Human Resource Management and Transportation, Logistics, and Supply Chain Management programs. “We ended up having a lot of positive responses from the folks at my college, including from senior leadership,” said Bem. The library opted not to renew its LexisNexis contract for the fall, and in the interim revised curriculums so they would not require the use of the database.

The college has not officially replaced Nexis Uni with another database, but librarians and the dean are looking into other options. One contender, San Francisco–based legal software platform Fastcase, was open to working with LWTech and had strong privacy safeguards, but wasn’t set up to serve educational institutions. Currently faculty are accessing materials and case studies through Harvard Business Review, with a variety of supplementary resources, and are exploring alternative proprietary platforms for legal information.

The transition has been relatively trouble-free, other than one adjunct professor who missed the conversation about dropping Nexis Uni and had to rush to find a workaround, said Bem. “It’s just a matter of communication and a little bit of follow up work that we’ve had to do.” LWTech has since expanded its collection development policy to include more specific language around privacy, databases, and subscription products.

“We didn’t even get any pushback from Lexis,” Bem added. “The account manager asked us why we decided not to renew, I literally responded with a two-sentence email with a very blunt statement about violating privacy of our students, and they didn’t respond.”

 

IMPLEMENTING CHANGE

Concerned librarians at other institutions are encouraged to sign the petition and talk to their directors, deans, and provosts, Rivano Barros said, to explain the issue and encourage library decision-makers to explore alternative tools.

Bem also recommends that library staff also read up on data privacy and surveillance capitalism before they broach the subject. “That context is a really good way to build a foundation for conversation,” he said. “That can include the library staff as a whole, but it can also include all of the external stakeholders, like the students, the administration, and the faculty.”

Of course, having discussions is only the first step in what can be a complex process. “A lot of schools have accredited programs that require the use of Westlaw or LexisNexis,” noted Bem. “If that is the case, then the creative problem solving has to emerge in other ways beyond the idea of getting rid of a contract.” He’s spoken with librarians who are using or considering solutions such as shared accounts for accessing these databases when they must be used, including language and warning around the risks involved with searching and sharing data. Bem also suggested supporting information literacy and data literacy around database use as part of the curriculum—”find ways to build that into how the library represents itself and how it shares its values within the community.”

While advocates like LFP encourage institutions to push back and cancel their subscriptions if LexisNexis is not responsive to their concerns, said Macrina, “the outcome that we are really seeking is one where Lexis recognizes that this is wrong and responds to the librarian community, to their customer base, and ends their contracts [with ICE].”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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