The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is testing a shiny new tool for its digital surveillance arsenal. It is a GPS-enabled wristwatch with facial recognition capabilities that will make it easier — officials say — for migrants awaiting immigration hearings to check in with the agency.

From ankle monitors to smartphone apps to the new Fitbit-esque smartwatch, the Biden administration has overseen a dramatic expansion of the technological toolbox used to surveil immigrants awaiting their hearings in the U.S. White House officials say these measures, all part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program, are more humane than traditional detention. But critics argue that the system reproduces the dynamics of incarceration with a technocratic spin, compromising the privacy rights of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers while leaving them with lasting psychological damage.

The program has also left migrants and human rights advocates with lots of questions about what exactly the government does with the substantial amounts of data that it collects. In a curious turn of events, less than a month before ICE announced its plans to pilot test the smartwatch, it unveiled its first-ever analysis of privacy risks that the Alternatives to Detention program carries.

All U.S. federal agencies are required by law to assess the potential privacy impacts of any technology they plan to use before actually deploying the software or tool. Although ICE first rolled out its electronic monitoring program in 2004, it didn’t get around to publishing an assessment of the program’s privacy-related risks until just last month.

Nearly two decades overdue, the assessment alludes to — but doesn’t answer — a number of key questions about the technologies that the agency uses to monitor immigrants to the U.S. 

Critics say the document does little to address the privacy civil liberties and human rights concerns they have long raised with the agency about the program. Instead, they say it presents red flags about ICE’s broad data collection and retention policies — indications that the agency is failing to meaningfully confront the long-term consequences of placing migrants under an invasive surveillance regime.

“These technologies represent an assault on people’s bodily autonomy,” said Hannah Lucal, a technology fellow with the immigrant rights legal firm Just Futures Law, which focuses on the intersection of immigration and technology. Alternatives to Detention, Lucal added, “is not a departure from the system of punishment that ICE produces. It’s really an extension of it.”

Although ICE’s e-monitoring program began two decades ago, the number of migrants subjected to electronic monitoring has exploded during Biden’s presidency. When he took office in January 2021, there were 86,000 people in the program. Now, over 280,000 migrants are enrolled in the digital surveillance system.

Migrants assigned to Alternatives to Detention are placed under one of three forms of electronic surveillance: a GPS ankle monitor with 24/7 location tracking, a phone reporting system that uses voice recognition to verify a person’s identity or a smartphone app that uses facial recognition software and GPS location tracking for check-ins. The smartphone app, SmartLINK, is responsible for the exponential growth in enrollment under the Biden administration. About 253,875 immigrants under ICE’s electronic monitoring system are on SmartLINK, according to the most up-to-date statistics from ICE. That’s up from 26,000 people on the app when Biden took office.

SmartLINK has been a focal point of concern for privacy experts. Despite the rapid addition of migrants to the app in recent years, ICE has provided little information about the data it collects and how it might be shared with other agencies. The app is operated by B.I. Incorporated, a subsidiary of the GEO Group, a private prison company, as part of a $2.2 billion contract with ICE. 

Last year, when I spoke with advocates who sued the federal government for more details about the app’s functionality and data collection policies (the lawsuit is ongoing), they posed some key questions about SmartLINK: Is the data collected by the app accessible to other government agencies? Does SmartLINK have the technical ability to gather location data about Alternatives to Detention enrollees beyond their designated check-ins? Does ICE provide adequate oversight of B.I.? Does B.I. have the ability to share the data it collects on Alternatives to Detention participants with third parties, such as other state agencies, or even other companies?

In 50 pages of explanation and assessment, the document does little to answer these questions. Chief among critics’ concerns are questions about location data tracking. The privacy assessment states that SmartLINK app is only able to collect GPS location data at the time of the program participants’ check-ins and when they log into the app. But a F.A.Q. about SmartLINK on ICE’s website complicates the picture. The page refers to another SmartLINK device — a B.I-issued phone with the app pre-installed — given to some program enrollees. According to the F.A.Q., this phone has the technical capability to monitor enrollees’ locations in real time, but “this is not a feature that ICE has elected to use for participants.” 

Lucal, from Just Futures Law, is skeptical. If the agency has the capacity to turn on continuous location monitoring, “there is absolutely no assurance that that is not happening or would not happen,” she told me. The absence of discussion in the privacy assessment about the B.I.-issued phone’s continuous location monitoring capabilities “seems like a gaping hole,” she added. “At any time, it could become active. And how would we know?”

‘Abuse of data is a near-certainty at ICE’

Privacy experts also told me they feared the data collected through Alternatives to Detention could be disseminated to other databases. The privacy assessment acknowledges that there is a risk that the information from the electronic monitoring program could be stored in other databases run by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE. It alleges that this risk, however, is “partially mitigated” by referring to a DHS policy that states that information is shared within the agency in accordance with the law and only for authorized purposes because officials “must have timely access to all relevant information for which they have a need-to-know to successfully perform their duties.” Jake Wiener, an attorney and surveillance expert with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says this portion of the policy ostensibly acknowledges that “instead of being mitigated, this risk is an open, ongoing, and harmful practice.”

This is no small matter, Wiener points out, given recent reporting from WIRED that found that ICE employees and contractors abused their access to internal databases to search for information about former partners and coworkers, provided their login information to family members and even shared privileged information with criminals in exchange for cash. The assessment, Wiener says, “fails to consider that abuse of data is a near-certainty at ICE, and that putting that data in more hands by sending it to DHS’s far-reaching databases increases the likelihood of harm.”

The document also reveals that ICE agents and case managers employed by the contractor B.I. have access to the historical location data of migrants who used GPS ankle monitors. The document does not explain why officials would need access to participants’ historical location data — information that could be used to patch together a full picture of enrollees’ routine movements, including where they work and regularly spend time. Last year, a former SmartLINK participant told me he became anxious about the agency’s access to his location data after learning that ICE officers used data collected from workers’ GPS monitors to orchestrate a mass immigration raid at a poultry plant in Mississippi.

“A major concern is that ICE can use any of the data that it extracts to carry out location surveillance of not just the people they subject to these programs, but also anyone who might be in close proximity to them, like family members or people they live with or neighbors,” Lucal said. “There’s just this massive scale of surveillance that’s happening through this program. And the privacy assessment is trying really hard to obscure that, but it’s coming through.”

There is also a glaring omission in the assessment. In an announcement last week, ICE touted its latest surveillance tech tool — GPS-enabled wristwatch trackers —  but there is no mention of the technology in the privacy assessment. One can only wonder how long it will be before ICE endeavors to assess the risks of its newest tool if the agency decides to deploy it en masse when the pilot testing period ends.

White House officials say these technologies are more humane than detention. But they still have adverse, real-world impacts on the people who use them. Migrants I interviewed last year described how the phone app and the agency’s other e-carceration technologies harmed their relationships and employment prospects and brought them emotional and physical distress. 

A 2021 report by the Cardozo School of Law found that 90% of people with ankle monitors said the device negatively affected their physical and mental health, causing everything from electric shocks to sleep disruption, social isolation and suicidal ideation. In interviews with me last year, people forced to use SmartLINK, meanwhile, expressed deep anxieties about the app’s technological glitches, fearing that malfunctions during the check-in process could lead to their deportation. Carlos, an immigrant placed on SmartLINK, described the app as a “shadow” hovering over his family. 

“Every time I get a call from an unknown number and they see it, they think that it’s from ICE asking me where I am.” He said no matter the technology used — from ankle monitors to smartphones — the outcome is the same: “Fear. The only thing that changes is the system.”