Cook County, Ill., officials say ICE using data brokers to purchase protected information

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During a public hearing Wednesday, officials from Cook County, Illinois, took aim at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for its use of third-party firms to obtain public and private data on individuals.

That practice, the county officials said, violates the spirit of local sanctuary laws and similar measures in other jurisdictions around the country. Under those statutes, local law enforcement agencies are prohibited from assisting federal immigration authorities in detaining immigrants.

ICE’s use of LexisNexis and other data brokers has become a focus of immigration advocacy groups in recent weeks, with many calling on data companies to sever their ties with the agency. 

Documents obtained by immigration advocacy group Just Futures Law earlier this year showed that ICE agents searched the LexisNexis database more than 1.2 million times over the course of seven months in 2021, casting doubt on ICE’s assurances that it would only use the database to identify people it believed pose a serious threat to public safety.

‘Needs to be addressed immediately’

In Cook County, which counts Chicago among its 134 municipalities, ICE officers searched the LexisNexis database around 13,000 times between March and September of 2021 — more than 60 searches per day, according to documents obtained by local advocacy organizations.

A Cook County resident named Michelle Garcia said at the hearing she had seen her own data in the LexisNexis database. She reported finding 43 pages of information about herself, including past and present addresses, mortgage information, phone numbers and information on friends, family and acquaintances. 

“How can we claim to be a sanctuary city when ICE receives jail booking data as often as every 15 minutes about the status of people in custody?” a speaker who did not identify herself said during the hearing. “That needs to be addressed immediately.”

‘A huge violation’

How exactly data collected by Cook County is flowing to LexisNexis is unclear, though contracts with data companies such as Appriss were identified as a potential source of information during the hearing. Also unclear is what county officials can do to prevent companies from gathering and sharing information with ICE. Cook County is among the first jurisdictions to address this issue in a hearing, and its response will likely be closely monitored by other counties.

“We’re seeing this as a huge violation of all our residents here in Cook County,” said Alma Anaya, county board commissioner of the 7th District, during the hearing. She added that she is “concerned about the diversion of data downstream off our contracts” and urged county office leaders to review all contracts with data brokers to see if there is the possibility that data is being shared with third parties in violation of ordinances and resolutions passed by the county.

A representative of the county’s Internet Security Working Group, which coordinates data usage policies across all county offices, said during the hearing that Cook County only collects “data that are necessary to support operations.” Representatives of several county offices testified that they do not share the personal data of residents on office websites, except in cases where data has been de-identified.

Some county officials pointed out that many court records are public information and that data shared with the intention of providing a public service could be collected and sold by data brokers for uses other than its intended purpose. The Cook County Public Defender’s office, for example, shares a list of people set to appear in bond court each day. Bond sheets used to be physically posted outside the courtroom prior to the pandemic, but are now shared online. The office will review whether it should continue to provide this information. 

Representatives from several Cook County offices shared that they have subscriptions to LexisNexis for research purposes, but said they do not upload any information or data to the system. Some offices, including the Public Defender’s Office, said that they will be exploring alternatives to LexisNexis.

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