Terry H. Schwadron

May 10, 2022

Over two decades, it became obvious that data – information about consumers, companies, purchases, likes and such – was a valuable commercial resource.

The biggest tech companies have used the collection of that data to target advertising or messaging, selling the lists that huge commercial databases amass. Law enforcement took notice and has gotten in on harvesting information from these databases as well.

A sense of abridging personal privacy is one of the reasons for public ire and congressional attention for the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.

Last week, one of those companies, Toronto-based Thompson Reuters agreed in a negotiation with a Canadian trade union that it will review contracts used to track U.S. migrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Indeed, the company said it would re-assess “the human rights impacts of our investigative and research solutions” as part of broader company-wide review.

Thompson Reuters owns not only the Reuters news agency but a data-mining company called Clear, among others, that collects and sells personal data to all purchasers, including governments and law enforcement agencies. Still, the company said it had no intention of severing ties with government agencies, though the contract with ICE has expired.

The company self-assessment came after a sustained push by the British Columbia General Employees’ Union, representing 80,000 public workers, to use its role as a company shareholder to seek the analysis of human rights risks of government contracts.

A company spokesman acknowledged that “all companies should consider potential human rights risks related to their operations.”

The ICE Case

Last year, The Washington Post reported that public records show ICE officers had been using the private database with hundreds of millions of phone, water, electricity and other utility records while pursuing immigration violations. The force of the reporting was that ICE’s use of the private database illustrated how government agencies have exploited commercial sources to access information they are not authorized to compile on their own.

ICE has not said anything about the company review, but after the first article, a national utility group agreed to stop providing data to Clear.

It also highlights how real-world surveillance efforts are being fueled by information people may never have expected would land in the hands of law enforcement.

How exactly ICE has used the personal information to track migrants remains secret, though addresses, phones and photos seem obvious choices to confirm identity.

Thompson Reuters acknowledges that its databases are used by authorized police, government and corporate agencies to “catch bad actors, keep communities safe and investigate crimes, such as money laundering, human trafficking, and drug and weapons smuggling.”

The union has cited civil rights activists’ concerns that Clear had helped ICE detain immigrants and separate families not accused of any crime. About 20 percent of company shareholders and a majority of independent shareholders voted last summer for the human rights review.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill last year to limit government purchase of sensitive personal data on private citizens that would not otherwise be authorized to collect.

ICE has bought personal information on Americans from other data brokers, including Equifax and LexisNexis. In some “sanctuary cities” there are policies designed to limit the information that police can share with federal immigration authorities.

Broader Decisions

Undoubtedly, the Thomson Reuters announcement would help boost protests, as that called No Tech for ICE, seeking to stop efforts to surveil, raid and deport migrants.

But the union involved argues a yet wider set of ethical concerns about unrestrained sharing of personal information.

The Thompson Reuters move comes as companies large and small are re-thinking corporate responsibilities in society, from the contentious decision at Disney to speak out publicly against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law to the myriad small companies now re-considering how and whether they or their employees should be part of Twitter feeds as it moves to eliminate review for sharing misinformation.

And among governmental entities, there have been database challenges as well. Just last week a New York court halted the use of a state DNA database for cracking cold criminal cases because state lawmakers never approved the practice. The database provided law enforcement agencies with leads to close biological relatives of people who have left traces of genetic material at a crime scene.

What has been strictly private and individual has become available for public or law enforcement review. The role of companies who engage in collecting and selling data is in the crosshairs, as we have seen in the discussions of attempts to regulate the public posting sites for misinformation or even libel.

Companies are suddenly faced with the prospects of having to take public positions on treatments and time off for employees required to travel out of state for a legal abortion. Texas and other states are now incenting lawsuits against anyone who helps in arranging or transporting to abortion sites – and now trying to extend that control beyond state borders. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to imagine tracking emails, posts, messages and specific addresses for customers of mailed abortion pills, for example.

Other companies, like Hobby Lobby, proudly tie the religious beliefs of its management to how it runs its employee policies.

Running throughout this discussion is the preservation of individual information as private. How much is being shared directly with employers and technology companies, and how much is being shared indirectly with advertisers or law enforcement? All of it is happening without individual knowledge or control over who can see purchases, posts or opinions.

The Thompson Reuters example seems a window into much larger issues of privacy and rights of citizens and would-be citizens alike.

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