Glitchy ICE App Jeopardizes Immigrants, Raises Privacy Concerns

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Nearly 250,000 immigrants awaiting their court hearings have been forced to download an app by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of its Alternative to Detention (ATD) program. The agency has pitched the app, SmartLINK, as a more humane method than other ATD tools, such as shackles, ankle monitors, and detention centers. However, reporting by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio for Documented NY and The Markup in June 2022, and Maurizio Guerrero for In These Times in September, revealed the app’s many technical issues, causing users to question its reliability. Additionally, critics have raised concerns over the app’s access to immigrants’ personal data and what ultimately happens to data collected by ICE and the company that owns the app, BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of The GEO Group, which profits from private prisons and detention centers.

ICE’s SmartLINK monitors immigrants on conditional release by using geolocation and voice and facial recognition to perform weekly check-ins. However, the app has been known to be glitchy, sometimes failing to detect the user’s voice or upload photos. This has contributed to immigrants’ feelings of anxiety and stress. Furthermore, the app can impede the ability of immigrants to get and keep a job. A May 2022 report commissioned by thirteen immigrant rights organizations concluded, “SmartLINK poses heightened surveillance, data collection and human rights threats,” and it “causes deep anxiety about ICE’s access to personal lives and a constant sense of being watched.” Reporting from Documented NY and The Markup stated, “some users even said that the psychological toll of living with the SmartLINK app was comparable to that of ankle monitors.”

In addition to the psychological toll placed on these immigrants, there are concerns about privacy and data collection. Documented NY and The Markup found the SmartLINK app not only had access to a device’s camera and location for check-ins, but could also record audio and take calls without the user’s permission, in contradiction to the app’s privacy policy which asserts that BI Incorporated only collects information when the app is being used. BI also claims that data is stored only on the user’s phone and is the property of ICE. But ICE has refused to release any records about SmartLINK. According to experts, there is a growing trend of law enforcement agencies purchasing this type of data for surveillance purposes, which raises questions about who else can get access to SmartLINK’s data.

These concerns are rooted in reality: In January 2023, Texas Public Radio reported that the conservative group Heritage Foundation had obtained the location of at least 30,000 cell phones at NGO shelters and Customs and Border Protection facilities in January 2022 and tracked the devices’ movements. It is unclear how the Heritage Foundation got the information, but it raised red flags with privacy experts.

There has been little corporate coverage about the ATD program or SmartLINK. On March 25, 2022, the New York Times reported the Biden administration has turned to a smartphone app with facial recognition (without mentioning SmartLINK by name) for undocumented immigrants awaiting court processing as migrant crossings have increased. They acknowledged that 200,000 migrants have been placed on monitoring devices. On February 3, 2023, NBC News reported 25,000 migrants had been removed from the ATD program. They also reported that two senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials had said DHS would be forced to make cuts to the program. NBC News touted the ATD program as “far less” expensive than holding migrants in detention and mentioned that migrants enrolled in the program had a 99.4 percent rate of showing up to their first court hearing.


Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Surya Mattu, “Meet SmartLINK, the App Tracking Nearly a Quarter Million Immigrants,” Documented NY and The Markup, June 27, 2022.

Maurizio Guerrero, “The App ICE Forces You To Download,” In These Times, September 26, 2022.

Pablo De La Rosa, “Conservative Group Targets Migrant Cell Phone Data at NGOs, Raising Privacy Concerns,” Texas Public Radio, January 6, 2023.

Student Researcher: Adrian Martinez-De La Cruz (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)