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Border & Immigration

ICE agents do unauthorized searches, records show

In San Diego, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent used a federal database to spy on his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. Another agent used a database to get a detainee’s personal information and give it to someone who wasn’t authorized to have it.

Those are just a few local examples of hundreds of ICE misconduct cases in a database obtained and published by Wired Magazine.

The news organization obtained documents of internal investigations into alleged database abuse that included harassment and stalking.


KPBS identified 26 cases in San Diego and Imperial counties between 2016 and 2019.

Some of the cases involve serious allegations, like an ICE agent in El Centro organizing a drug smuggling operation by disclosing “law enforcement sensitive information.” But the majority involve seemingly minor offenses like agents looking themselves up in various databases.

Still, privacy experts say even the minor violations raise big questions.

“They might seem like low-level offenses, but what they do is tell a broader picture of the culture of DHS and ICE and CBP,” said Dave Maass, policy director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

If those minor violations go unpunished, agents could feel emboldened, he said.


“People feel like they’re not being watched, and they can look up whatever they want on the database,” Maass said. “Maybe that starts with looking up themselves and maybe that progresses to maybe looking up their ex-wives.”

Some ICE agents faced little discipline even after allegations against them were substantiated, records show.

Possible resolutions for these internal investigations are “unsubstantiated,” “unfounded,” “referred to management” and “not referred to management.”

The case of an agent looking up his ex-wife’s new boyfriend was not referred to management. Neither was an unauthorized license plate reader search, records show.

ICE did not respond to questions about the data misuse cases, including what steps they’ve taken to reduce these abuses since 2019, when the most recent records are from.

Part of what makes these violations so concerning to data privacy experts is the amount of personal data these databases contain.

Federal law enforcement agents can track people’s movement with automated license plate readers. They have access to addresses, employment history and phone records. The federal databases also pull information from local and state sources. For example, the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System has criminal histories and driving records.

“They keep ingesting more and more (data),” Maass said. “It’s very difficult to know the full breadth of information they have.”

“People feel like they’re not being watched, and they can look up whatever they want on the database. Maybe that starts with looking up themselves and maybe that progresses to maybe looking up their ex-wives.”
David Maass, director of investigations at Electronic Frontier Foundation

Two of the specific databases abused by ICE agents and contractors are TECS and ICM.

TECS is not an acronym. The database is managed by the Department of Homeland Security and is “the principal system used by officers at the border to assist with screening determinations regarding admissibility of arriving persons,” according to the department's website.

The database pulls data from multiple federal, state and local agencies including the FBI, TSA, Department of Labor and the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, according to an internal privacy impact assessment.

ICM stands for Investigative Case Management. It contains biographic data like date of birth and social security numbers, financial data, license plate reader data and call records, according to another internal privacy assessment.

Here in San Diego County, the Chula Vista Police Department shared with ICE data from its automated license plate reader program as recently as 2020.

In 2018, ICE's surveillance technology was used to track lawyers and humanitarian workers helping migrants in Tijuana.

Nicole Ramos, the director of Al Otro Lado’s border rights project, was the subject of this surveillance. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) even had a dossier on Ramos.

“That included information such as my mother’s name, where she lives, my travel including international travel that did not originate in the U.S.,” she said.

There were also real-world consequences of being on a CBP watchlist — Ramos had her Global Entry card confiscated.

Those cards are vital for people who live and work in near the border. They allow people to cross through special car and pedestrian lanes that are much faster than the general travel lanes. Having one of those cards is the difference between crossing the border in 30 minutes or three hours.

Ramos believes she is still under surveillance. She avoids crossing the border unless absolutely necessary.

“People might say, ‘Well if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about,’” Ramos said. “But the fact that I’m not doing anything wrong should be enough for the government to not surveil us and keep us on a watchlist.”