New Documents Reveal How ICE Mines Local Police Databases Across the Country
In cities across the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations agents can mine local police reports using COPLINK, a data program little known outside law enforcement circles. While public records have revealed ICE’s access to this program in the past, new documents, obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts and shared with The Appeal, offer the first […]
George Joseph Apr 26, 2018
In cities across the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations agents can mine local police reports using COPLINK, a data program little known outside law enforcement circles. While public records have revealed ICE’s access to this program in the past, new documents, obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts and shared with The Appeal, offer the first up-close glimpse at how the program allows ICE to access millions of sensitive police records.
The software ingests local police databases, allowing users to map out people’s social networks and browse data that could include their countries of origin, license plate numbers, home addresses, alleged gang membership records, and more.
ICE HSI agents have direct access to the Massachusetts version of the COPLINK system, which receives records from Massachusetts’s Registry of Motor Vehicles, Board of Probation, and at least local 25 police agencies. As NPR has previously reported, ICE also has direct access to COPLINK-powered databases in other jurisdictions across the country, gathering data from dozens of police departments across Los Angeles County and Arizona.
Law enforcement officials and former ICE agents say the sharing of these databases and analytic tools helps ICE Homeland Security Investigations — the agency’s investigative arm — tackle serious crimes, like child pornographyand money laundering. But immigration advocates point out that ICE HSI agents are also involved in questionable immigration enforcement actions nationwide. These include investigations into undocumented residents accused of gang membership, sometimes based on flimsy evidence, and controversial workplace raids, which acting ICE chief Tom Homan recently announced plans to quadruple.
Earlier this month, at a slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tennessee, ICE HSI agents carried out the largest workplace raid in over a decade, rounding upnearly 100 immigrants. Advocates say this raid signals a return to George W. Bush-era style workplace enforcement actions, which swept up hundreds of immigrants in towns like New Bedford, Massachusetts, over a decade ago.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data-sharing agreements obtained by The Appeal through the Freedom of Information Act make clear that ICE agents can access COPLINK “in the same manner” as local law enforcement for immigration enforcement purposes.
The constantly updated police records in COPLINK, arising from day-to-day police encounters, can be indispensable for ICE HSI agents, who often need to find addresses, cars, phone numbers, and associates that are not necessarily housed in federal or private sector databases, according to Massachusetts police and former ICE agents interviewed by The Appeal. They can help ICE officers conduct background research on employees before a workplace enforcement action or when planning logistics for a gang raid.
In a phone call with The Appeal, ICE spokesperson John Mohan declined to discuss ICE’s use of COPLINK. “We don’t talk about the techniques or tools [ICE agents] use,” said Mohan. The Appeal has since filed a Freedom of Information request for data on ICE agents’ querying of COPLINK databases across the country.
Notably, many of the major police departments that feed into COPLINK, and allow ICE direct access to their data, are situated in so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions that have promised some measure of protection to undocumented immigrants. Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Pasadena police, for example, feed into a Los Angeles County-wide COPLINK database, and Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge police feed into Massachusetts’s COPLINK regional database.
Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Technology for Liberty Program, argues that although it’s unclear whether sanctuary cities can legally withhold data from ICE, they should not actively help ICE agents by giving them direct access to local systems like COPLINK.
“By giving ICE and other federal agencies credentialed access to state and local law enforcement databases, communities are perhaps unintentionally endangering immigrants and other groups who may be targeted by the federal government,” Crockford said in a statement to The Appeal. “Data is toxic, and local communities must understand exactly what their police are collecting, how they are retaining it, and under what circumstances outside entities like ICE can access it.”
How the Program Works
COPLINK was initially developed by University of Arizona researchers in collaboration with the Tucson Police Department in 1998, as a way to share information between local police departments regionally. It has since spread to over 5,100 law enforcement jurisdictions throughout the United States and is now owned by the technology firm Forensic Logic.
ICE’s access to local COPLINK police databases has grown as well. In 2008, ICE signed data-sharing agreements with AZLINK, the COPLINK data hub in Arizona, and with IRIS, the COPLINK hub in Los Angeles County. It is unclear when ICE first formally gained access to Massachusetts police data through COPLINK, but a training roster obtained from the Massachusetts State Police listed numerous ICE agents and analysts next to dates, which correspond to COPLINK training sessions in 2015 and 2016.
In Massachusetts’s version of COPLINK, 25 police agencies across the state automatically feed almost all the data from their records management systems — including arrests, complaints, and citation reports — into COPLINK, according to the documents. Databases from another 13 police departments, in addition to the state’s Department of Correction, Parole Board, and sex offender registry, were being integrated into the program as of last year. According to Lieutenant Colonel Dermott Quinn, commander of the Massachusetts State Police’s Division of Investigative Services, the system also intakes accident reports, parking tickets, and field interview notes from local police departments.
ICE HSI agents have virtually unfettered access to COPLINK in Massachusetts. Similarly, ICE’s data-sharing agreements with Arizona’s AZLINK and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s IRIS, both COPLINK systems, state explicitly that ICE agents are free to mine their data. In 2011, for example, Department of Homeland Security users, including ICE personnel, searched AZLINK, an Arizona regional data system that uses COPLINK software, thousands of times over a six-month period.
Drawing from this body of records, COPLINK allows users to search for individuals, organizations, and vehicles, among other things. These searches can be narrowed down using filters, such as a person’s race, hair color, eye color, complexion, ethnicity, and country of origin. The slide below also shows that users can search for people based on their residence and physical marks on their bodies.