This story was published in partnership with The Markup
For many people, an app malfunctioning is scarcely more than an annoyance. But for a Honduran immigrant living in Pennsylvania, a recent glitch elicited fears about the worst-case scenario: that it could hurt her chances of staying in America.
As her case works its way through immigration court, the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of negative consequences for speaking with the media, has been required by immigration officials to check in weekly on a smartphone app owned by a subsidiary of the massive private-prison company GEO Group. When she opened it up to diligently take and send a selfie on the designated day, the picture wouldn’t deliver. The app was malfunctioning. And she was terrified.
“That whole day, you can’t imagine how I was feeling,” she said in Spanish. She worried officials would incorrectly assume she was dodging them. “If they come knocking on the door, what will I say, what will I do?”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is in the midst of a grand experiment, vastly increasing the number of immigrants it monitors during conditional release, mostly through the use of a smartphone-based application called SmartLINK.
In less than three years, ICE has vastly expanded use of the app from fewer than 6,000 people in September 2019, according to data kept by TRAC, Syracuse University, to more than 230,000 as of June 20, ICE data shows. That’s more than 80 percent of the nearly 280,000 people on monitored conditional release, which ICE calls the Alternatives to Detention program. Many of the others are on ankle monitors.
SmartLINK began under President Donald Trump, but the Biden administration has continued to expand it, presenting it as a humane alternative to ankle monitors and detention centers. Its costs aren’t broken out, but overall costs for the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program is about $4.11 per day per immigrant, according to Department of Homeland Security budget documents. As officials trudge through the vast immigration court backlog, many thousands of immigrants could be tethered to the SmartLINK app for years.
Both ICE and BI Incorporated, the GEO Group subsidiary that ICE pays to carry out the monitoring, tout the app as a valuable and noninvasive way to keep track of immigrants awaiting court dates on their petitions to stay in the country.
“BI SmartLINK provides a secure platform for officers and clients to share information, making remote case management a reality. Mobile communication is immediate, convenient, and timesaving for both officers and clients,” BI Incorporated says about the technology on its website.
ICE spokesperson Mike Alvarez said the agency’s Alternatives to Detention program, which is mostly SmartLINK, “increases court appearance rates, compliance with release conditions, and helps the participants meet their basic needs and understand their immigration obligations.” However, there are also other strategies: Studies show that legal counsel is a very effective way of ensuring that immigrants show up to court.
The app is certainly more discreet than an ankle monitor and more convenient—it doesn’t require immigrants to be physically tethered to an electrical socket to recharge, for instance. It also does not cause the physical harm that participants have reported with ankle monitors.
Another potential benefit: The number of individuals held in detention has also dropped, mostly in step with the increase in people told to report via the app. In July 2019, more than 55,500 immigrants were held in detention. Data kept by TRAC, Syracuse University, shows the detained ICE population fell below 20,000 at four separate points this year—but it’s been rising in recent months.
Alvarez said SmartLINK’s benefits include reminders for upcoming appointments, an in-app database of local community services, and allowing participants to send messages and documents to officers and case specialists through the app.
But immigration advocates note that SmartLINK has enabled the government to increase the number of people who are tracked by ICE—and they are concerned about that monitoring.
“While ICE has pitched mobile surveillance as a more humane alternative, SmartLink poses heightened surveillance, data collection and human rights threats,” read a recent report released by more than a dozen advocacy organizations who have been closely monitoring the issue, including Just Futures Law and Mijente.
In April, three of those groups sued ICE and the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California for records about the data SmartLINK gathers. The suit is ongoing.
Documented conducted interviews with a dozen SmartLINK users, all Spanish-speakers and many of whom characterized the app as an oppressive surveillance system that caused distinct emotional distress. Nearly all requested full or partial anonymity for fear of retribution by government officials.
Several immigrants said technical issues with the app made them worry negative consequences for their immigration cases were on the horizon if officials assumed they weren’t following the check-in rules.
Some users even said that the psychological toll of living with the SmartLINK app was comparable to that of ankle monitors. “I had an ankle monitor. They took off my ankle monitor and they’re making me use that app. It’s as if I still had it [the ankle monitor] on,” said one Honduran immigrant living in New York City.
Many said they were concerned about how the data was used and worried about privacy, particularly about how communication surveillance and location tracking could affect their undocumented family members.
Using the Exodus Privacy service to examine the Android version of SmartLINK, Documented and The Markup found that SmartLINK’s permissions are not limited to accessing the device’s camera and location to carry out check-ins, but rather the application also requests permissions to record audio and make calls without requiring user permission.
However, Monica Hook, vice president of communications for GEO Care, said in an email that “regardless of user-approved permissions, BI Incorporated does not record participant audio or video. BI SmartLINK also does not make calls in the application without participant notification and action.”
Alvarez, the ICE spokesperson, said that the agency is “committed to protecting privacy rights, and civil rights and liberties of all participants within the Alternatives to Detention Program,” but did not respond to specific questions about what data can be accessed through the app.
Documented and The Markup tested how the app worked on the iOS devices of two immigrants who were required to use the app and gave us access to their data using Apple’s recently introduced privacy reports. The reports showed that for these two people over three weeks, SmartLINK accessed the camera and the location information when the app was launched or the person was completing their required check-in. It’s not possible to extrapolate from this small sample to other cases or other operating systems, such as Android or older versions of iOS.
Another issue advocates raised is who else has access to the data the government collects—and who might take it. With an average recent wait time of more than two years for immigration court dates, the app has access to years of information.
“There is a concern over what privacy protections BI is implementing for that data, and there’s not a lot of transparency over any conditions ICE has placed onto BI Inc. regarding the storage of that data, how that data gets used,” said Dana Khabbaz, a law fellow focusing on surveillance and immigration issues at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Experts are also apprehensive about the consumer data industry capitalizing on SmartLINK’s information, Khabbaz said, including location data. “There is a growing trend of law enforcement agencies purchasing that data from data brokers for surveillance purposes,” Khabbaz said. And she wonders who else might be getting access to SmartLINK data.
She’s particularly worried about how the photos immigrants sent are being used, given the lack of regulation around facial recognition technology. “It’s concerning that ICE is adopting the use of this technology in an immigration enforcement context,” she said, “including a context where people involved in this program don’t have an option to opt out of it.”
A former BI employee who was a case manager in Indiana and worked with dozens of SmartLINK users often questioned what was happening to the data collected through the app, especially with the photos. “No one seemed to want to answer my question,” the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “What they never told us, and what I always wondered, is where is the data being saved?”
On its website, the GEO Group, BI’s parent company, called it a “myth” that BI “abuses” any personal data. The company said ICE owns all the data collected through electronic monitoring, not the GEO Group or BI, and that no biometric data is transmitted from a user’s device. It also states on its website that BI follows federal privacy laws and “does not conduct any ‘surveillance’ activities.”
Yet in interviews with Documented, many SmartLINK users said they have received little indication from case managers or other officials about the extent to which officials protect sensitive information in their phones. They were especially concerned about information that could affect their own immigration case, or disclose the whereabouts and legal status of their loved ones.
Several SmartLINK users said they go so far as to limit contact with relatives and friends on their devices, especially with those who are undocumented, for fear that ICE could intercept their communications.
One Honduran immigrant said she tells people who are undocumented, “No, don’t write to me. I’m going to try and find another phone to call you from.”
SmartLINK users say they worry that technical problems with the app—including when it fails to upload a user’s photo or is completely down—could get them in trouble with immigration authorities.
Bessy Aguilera, a woman from Honduras living in Illinois, recalls one occasion when she sent in her photo as required, but the app did not register it. Immediately, BI called Aguilera’s brother and told him to ask her to turn on her phone and send the selfie, even though she already had, she said.
“It’s something very frustrating that causes a lot of pressure. You really feel awful,” she said. “The app fails, and then they want to know where you are … so then they’re calling and calling and calling to the contact that you gave at the office.”
Neither ICE nor GEO answered questions regarding the technical glitches. The GEO Group states on its website that SmartLINK has a “99.9% uptime track record to date.”
But the former BI employee who previously worked in Indiana said glitches were not uncommon. “The technology was not good,” the former employee said. “Sometimes it would send a photo, but then the location wouldn’t come on … even if they had location services on.”
“ICE Officials Could Come Get Me”
And the repercussions for not reporting can be severe. Several users described threatening words from their case managers, who warned them if they did not comply with the rules, they would have an ankle monitor strapped to their bodies. BI and ICE officials didn’t respond to questions about that, but two former employees confirmed it was true in interviews with Documented.
Yasmani, an immigrant from Cuba, remembers clearly what officials told him the day they downloaded the app on his phone. “They told me that I had to comply because if not I could get the ankle monitor placed on me again, or ICE officials could come get me.”
Alvarez, the ICE spokesperson, said individuals who do not report can be arrested and potentially deported.
When Aguilera, the woman from Honduras living in Illinois, once sent her picture without her phone location enabled, she said, she soon received a call from her BI case manager asking her to turn her location on. She immediately thought about how it would affect her immigration status. She lives in fear of making a mistake while monitored through the app, she said.
“I was really scared because I imagined that immigration officials could arrive at my house, or the police could,” she said.
The Honduran immigrant in Pennsylvania who had trouble with SmartLINK’s camera said she once turned off the GPS location monitoring on her phone to preserve the battery. She soon received a call from officials asking her why she had turned off the GPS, she said.
“Every time they call me, I’m scared,” she said. “The truth is … I don’t feel free.”
The Markup’s Surya Mattu contributed to this report.
This article is a collaboration with The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates how powerful institutions are using technology to change our society. Sign up for their newsletters here: https://mrkup.org/RmN01