THE POPULAR LEGAL RESEARCH and data brokerage firm LexisNexis signed a $16.8 million contract to sell information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to documents shared with The Intercept. The deal is already drawing fire from critics and comes less than two years after the company downplayed its ties to ICE, claiming it was “not working with them to build data infrastructure to assist their efforts.”
Though LexisNexis is perhaps best known for its role as a powerful scholarly and legal research tool, the company also caters to the immensely lucrative “risk” industry, providing, it says, 10,000 different data points on hundreds of millions of people to companies like financial institutions and insurance companies who want to, say, flag individuals with a history of fraud. LexisNexis Risk Solutions is also marketed to law enforcement agencies, offering “advanced analytics to generate quality investigative leads, produce actionable intelligence and drive informed decisions” — in other words, to find and arrest people.
The LexisNexis ICE deal appears to be providing a replacement for CLEAR, a risk industry service operated by Thomson Reuters that has been crucial to ICE’s deportation efforts. In February, the Washington Post noted that the CLEAR contract was expiring and that it was “unclear whether the Biden administration will renew the deal or award a new contract.”
LexisNexis’s February 25 ICE contract was shared with The Intercept by Mijente, a Latinx advocacy organization that has criticized links between ICE and tech companies it says are profiting from human rights abuses, including LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters. The contract shows LexisNexis will provide Homeland Security investigators access to billions of different records containing personal data aggregated from a wide array of public and private sources, including credit history, bankruptcy records, license plate images, and cellular subscriber information. The company will also provide analytical tools that can help police connect these vast stores of data to the right person.
Though the contract is light on details, other ICE documents suggest how the LexisNexis database will be put to use. A notice posted before the contract was awarded asked for a database that could “assist the ICE mission of conducting criminal investigations” and come with “a robust analytical research tool for … in-depth exploration of persons of interest and vehicles,” including what it called a “License Plate Reader Subscription.”
LexisNexis Risk Solutions spokesperson Jennifer Richman declined to say exactly what categories of data the company would provide ICE under the new contract, or what policies, if any, will govern how agency agency uses it, but said, “Our tool contains data primarily from public government records. The principal non-public data is authorized by Congress for such uses in the Drivers Privacy Protection Act and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act statutes.”
The listing indicated the database would be used by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations agency. While HSI is tasked with investigating border-related criminal activities beyond immigration violations, the office frequently works to raid and arrest undocumented people alongside ICE’s deportation office, Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO. A 2019 report from the Brennan Center for Justice described HSI as having “quietly become the backbone of the White House’s immigration enforcement apparatus. Its operations increasingly focus on investigating civil immigration violations, facilitating deportations carried out by ERO, and conducting surveillance of First Amendment-protected expression.” In 2018, The Intercept reported on an HSI raid of a Tennessee meatpacking plant that left scores of undocumented workers detained and hundreds of local children too scared to attend school the following day.
Department of Homeland Security budget documents show that ICE has used LexisNexis databases since at least 2016 through the National Criminal Analysis and Targeting Center, a division of ERO that assists in “locating aliens convicted of criminal offenses and other aliens who are amenable to removal,” including “those who are unlawfully present in the United States.”
It’s exceedingly difficult to participate in modern society without generating computerized records of the sort that LexisNexis obtains and packages for resale.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the enormity of the dossiers LexisNexis creates about citizens and undocumented persons alike. While you can at least attempt to use countermeasures against surveillance technologies like facial recognition or phone tracking, it’s exceedingly difficult to participate in modern society without generating computerized records of the sort that LexisNexis obtains and packages for resale. The company’s databases offer an oceanic computerized view of a person’s existence; by consolidating records of where you’ve lived, where you’ve worked, what you’ve purchased, your debts, run-ins with the law, family members, driving history, and thousands of other types of breadcrumbs, even people particularly diligent about their privacy can be identified and tracked through this sort of digital mosaic. LexisNexis has gone even further than merely aggregating all this data: The company claims it holds 283 million distinct individual dossiers of 99.99% accuracy tied to “LexIDs,” unique identification codes that make pulling all the material collected about a person that much easier. For an undocumented immigrant in the United States, the hazard of such a database is clear.
For those seeking to surveil large populations, the scope of the data sold by LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters is equally clear and explains why both firms are listed as official data “partners” of Palantir, a software company whose catalog includes products designed to track down individuals by feasting on enormous datasets. This partnership lets law enforcement investigators ingest material from the companies’ databases directly into Palantir data-mining software, allowing agencies to more seamlessly spy on migrants or round them up for deportation. “I compare what they provide to the blood that flows through the circulation system,” explained City University of New York law professor and scholar of government data access systems Sarah Lamdan. “What would Palantir be able to do without these data flows? Nothing. Without all their data, the software is worthless.” Asked for specifics of the company’s relationship with Palantir, the LexisNexis spokesperson told The Intercept only that its parent company RELX was an early investor in Palantir and that “LexisNexis Risk Solutions does not have an operational relationship with Palantir.”
And yet compared with Palantir, which eagerly sells its powerful software to clients like ICE and the National Security Agency, Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis have managed to largely avoid an ugly public association with controversial government surveillance and immigration practices. They have protected their reputations in part by claiming that even though LexisNexis may contract with ICE, it’s not enabling the crackdowns and arrests that have made the agency infamous but actually helping ICE’s detainees defend their legal rights. In 2019, after hundreds of law professors, students, and librarians signed a petition calling for Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis to cease contracting with ICE, LexisNexis sent a mass email to law school faculty defending their record and seeming to deny that their service helps put people in jail. Describing this claim as “misinformation,” the LexisNexis email, which was shared with The Intercept, stated: “We are not providing jail-booking data to ICE and are not working with them to build data infrastructure to assist their efforts. … LexisNexis and RELX does not play a key ‘role in fueling the surveillance, imprisonment, and deportation of hundreds of thousands of migrants a year.” (Emphasis in the original.) The email stated that “one of our competitors” was responsible for how “ICE supports its core data needs.” It went on to argue that, far from harming immigrants, LexisNexis is actually in the business of empowering them: Through its existing relationship with ICE, “detainees are provided access to an extensive electronic library of legal materials … that enable detainees to better understand their rights and prepare their immigration cases.”
“Your state might be down to give you a driver’s license, but that information might get into the hands of a data broker.”
The notion that LexisNexis is somehow more meaningfully in the business of keeping immigrants free rather than detained has little purchase with the company’s critics. Jacinta Gonzalez, field director of Mijente, told The Intercept that LexisNexis’s ICE contract fills the same purpose as CLEAR. Like CLEAR, LexisNexis provides an agency widely accused of systemic human rights abuses with the data it needs to locate people with little if any oversight, a system that’s at once invisible, difficult to comprehend, and near impossible to avoid. Even in locales where so-called sanctuary laws aim to protect undocumented immigrants, these vast privatized databases create a computerized climate of intense fear and paranoia for undocumented people, Gonzalez said. “You might be in a city where your local politician is trying to tell you, ‘Don’t worry, you’re welcome here,’ but then ICE can get your address from a data broker and go directly to your house and try to deport you,” Gonzalez explained. “Your state might be down to give you a driver’s license, but that information might get into the hands of a data broker. You might feel like you’re in a life or death situation and have to go to the hospital, but you’re concerned that if you can’t pay your bill a collection agency is going to share that information with ICE.”
Richman, the LexisNexis spokesperson, told The Intercept that “the contract complies with the new policies set out in President Biden’s Executive Order 13993 of January 21, which revised Civil Immigration Enforcement Policies and Priorities and the corresponding DHS interim guidelines” and that “these policies, effective immediately, emphasize a respect for human rights, and focus on threats to national security, public safety, and security at the border.” But Gonzalez says it would be naive to think ICE is somehow a lesser menace to undocumented communities with Donald Trump out of power. “At the end of the day, ICE is still made up by the same agents, by the same field office directors, by the same administrators. … I think that it is really important for people to understand that, as long as ICE continues to have so many agents and so many resources, that they’re going to have to have someone to terrorize.”