US (PT) – A wave of unease has blanketed America’s immigrant communities since President Donald Trump took office. Videos of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents, often in plain clothes and in unmarked cars, detaining suspected immigrants now seem commonplace. Few, however, question how exactly ICE is locating those targets.
A look into an extensive database of contracts awarded by the agency might offer some clues. It was shared with Pontiac Tribune by colleges in the independent media community. Dozens of companies are listed in the logs, including the private prison giant Geo Group.
One of those company’s is currently contracted for “over-the-air” tracking, Harris Corporation. The international corporation’s contract with ICE also involves “electronic-counter measures”, and technical support. Possibly IT-related, or maintenance and repair for provided surveillance equipment.
Harris is notorious for it’s distribution of IMSI catchers to the US government. Also called StingRay’s, or cell site simulators, these produce fake cell phone towers. Nearby phones are essentially forced to connect to this rouge cell tower before being routed to a real one. Besides tracking phones, StingRay’s can disrupt cell service, send fake calls or texts, or even push malware.
Cell site simulators normally come with non-disclosure agreements issued by Harris, or other companies. These NDA’s also apply when the devices pass between police agencies. In many cases, even judges are kept in the dark as to when as StingRay is used or why.
IMSI catchers can be put in police vehicles, including cars or planes for heightened mobility. During mass police brutality protests in Baltimore, activists and journalists traced several circling planes to federal law enforcement. The planes, registered under front companies, monitored protests for days. Although it’s unclear if they used StingRays, many protesters aware of the technologies suspected so. Similar, though more overt activity occurred throughout the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance.
Pontiac Tribune contacted ICE directly to get specifics on the Harris contracts. The agency’s public affairs office declined to comment on the nature of the aforementioned “over-the-air tracking” operations. Interestingly, the office did possibly link StingRay’s to the operations by directly disusing them.
Re: Cell-site simulators – ICE officers and special agents use a broad range of lawful investigative techniques in the apprehension of criminal suspects. Cell-site simulators are invaluable law enforcement tools that locate or identify mobile devices during active criminal investigations.
– Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) public affairs office.
Although Pontiac Tribune’s inquiry asked if Harris’ contracts involved “cell signals tracking?” StingRay’s were never referenced. There are a slew of means phones can be tracked or monitored beyond cell site simulators. An older request for comment from Pontiac to ICE, which went unanswered, also didn’t reference the devices. These statements by the public affairs office also contradict prior claims by ICE that it doesn’t use StingRay against undocumented immigrants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is involved in a wide variety of activities besides deportation. ICE agents conduct human trafficking and drug cases, as well as other investigations. If the public affairs office did just admit to StingRay use, then the devices may span some operations, but not others.
Even on the ground, cell site simulators are powerful devices capable of siphoning data from hundreds of devices at once. More advanced models, such as Bowing’s DirtBox, cast even wider drag nets. That effect, normally used on the ground, is augmented in the air. Planes travel more quickly over vaster areas, sometimes unnoticed and unimpeded. StingRay’s deployed from the air may be able to capture more data, for quicker tracking. That’s, of course, assuming ICE isn’t using the device’s slew of other capabilities.
Although the contract also calls on Harris Corporation to provide technical support, it’s unclear what specifically this entails. Most likely this is IT or maintenance-related. However, legal and technical limits could be tested if Harris employee’s themselves were operating StingRay’s for ICE operations. Unlike government agency’s, for-profit corporations aren’t subject to the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA).
That wall was demonstrated during DAPL, where private firms monitored protesters, and issued status reports to law enforcement. The various police agencies at DAPL largely denied FOIA’s asking them for surveillance documents. By doing so, law enforcement can essentially conduct broader surveillance through private contractors which is protected from public disclosure.
Harris Corporation is also just one company among dozens of others with active Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts. Collectively, this sea of for-profit contractors form a sophisticated infrastructure. From maintaining detention facilities, feeding and clothing prisoners, to tracking them down. The question now becomes how dependent Immigration and Customs Enforcement is on these contractors? Would ICE be as effective without out-sourcing? Is the Harris Corporation providing surveillance tech, or operating it themselves?
Editor’s Note: Harris corporation declined to respond for a comment regarding this story.