Chilling Free Expression: How ICE Uses Social Media to Target Immigrants

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The professed mission of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency is to “protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety.” In order to achieve said goals, must the agency speculate your relationship status? Know what flavor cake you had at your birthday party? The name of your new puppy? According to ICE, yes, this information can hold great value.

As Max Rivlin-Nadler reported in a December 22, 2019 article in The Intercept, in Southern California, ICE agents used Facebook posts, photographs, and other personal digital information, to locate and ultimately arrest an immigrant after the man posted photos of himself and his family at his father’s birthday party. This is just one of the growing number of cases in which ICE has used a social media “surveillance dragnet” to target vulnerable and often non-violent immigrants who might be subject to deportation.

The number of tools and platforms that ICE uses to target these individuals only continues to increase. The forceful crackdown of the Trump administration on immigrants has come at a cost to our laws and our right to privacy.

With the use of private databases like Thompson Reuters CLEAR, and contracts with commercial data brokers, ICE has been able to circumvent laws and other legal barriers to gather information on undocumented immigrants. Often times, such actions are in violation of the first and fourth amendments. Additionally, in the course of its data-gathering process, ICE has sifted through the personal information of thousands of U.S citizens in order to identify possible targets. ICE’s contract with Thompson Reuters, just one of many other privately-run databases, is worth $54 million dollars.

The only significant, detailed coverage of this story has come from independent news outlet The Intercept and in the form of report about tactics used by ICE to surveil and target undocumented individuals issued by the Brennan Center for Justice. On June 30, 2019, the New York Times published an op-ed denouncing ICE’s use of immigrants’ social media data written by the Brennan Center’s Faiza Patel. Otherwise, there has been no corporate media coverage of this story.


Max Rivlin-Nadler, “How ICE Uses Social Media to Surveil and Arrest Immigrants,” The Intercept, December 22, 2019,

“Social Media Surveillance by Homeland Security Investigations: A Threat to Immigrant Communities and Free Expression,” Brennan Center for Justice, November 15, 2019,

Tim Lau, “The Government is Expanding its Social Media Capabilities,” Brennan Center for Justice, May 22, 2019,,

Student Researcher: Sophie Ward (University of Vermont)

Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)