Privacy SOS

How “Secure Communities” makes us all insecure

The Massachusetts version of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio has something to celebrate. 

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the man who brought low tech chain gangs to Massachusetts in 1999 and who (unsuccessfully) this year pushed Dickensian legislation to make inmates pay rent of $5 per day called the ICE announcement that it would implement high tech “Secure Communities” statewide in Massachusetts on May 15 “great news for law enforcement and citizens.”

But law enforcement and citizens of Massachusetts: Be warned! The “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) program may be targeting immigrant communities, but it potentially affects everyone.  Here’s why. 

S-Comm is a program of biometric data collection and database interoperability.  Piloted by the Boston Police Department in 2006, it has since then been rolled out across most of the country, but to date has only been operational in Suffolk County in Massachusetts. Under S-Comm, anyone who is arrested by the police for any reason whatsoever has his or her biometric fingerprints taken and sent to the FBI. 

The FBI runs them through its criminal history database. The fingerprints are also automatically run through the DHS automated biometric identification system. A positive ‘match’ is automatically flagged for ICE, which then can request that the police who arrested the person hold him or her until an ICE agent can take the person into custody.    

S-Comm has been presented as a way of getting violent criminals out of the country.  But the vast majority of those deported under the program have no criminal convictions or are minor offenders. In Boston, noncriminals with visa problems and minor offenders who have been deported outnumber serious criminals by 2 to 1. 

Largely for this reason, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis have expressed serious reservations about the program, while Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick asserted that he would not sign a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to implement S-Comm.  

ICE responded by doing away with MOAs altogether, a move which was strongly criticized by four members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation. They argued that the program should not be imposed without taking into account the views of local law enforcement officers who feared it would make their job more difficult and communities less safe.   

Chelsea police chief Brian Kyes was among those who has made the case that S-Comm makes people afraid to report crimes for fear that they will get swept up in the S-Comm regime. Instances of domestic violence, neighborhood crime or anything else that brings people to the attention of the police are going unreported and creating insecure communities.

Who is getting caught up by S-Comm? Not British visa overstayers or other Europeans. Not Australians. Overwhelmingly, it has targeted Latinos – and not just Latino immigrants.

Examples of US citizens being deported under the program abound. For instance, a 15-year old girl from Texas was deported to Colombia after she was arrested for shoplifting.  Even though ICE ran her fingerprints, they believed she was an undocumented woman from Colombia and put her on a plane to that country. In another case, ICE deported a man with a mental disability. Despite being born in the U.S. of Puerto Rican descent, he was deported to Mexico.

Around the country there is evidence that the program has opened the door to racial profiling. Statistics from some jurisdictions where S-Comm is being implemented indicate that people are being arrested and having their fingerprints run because they “look like” immigrants.

It also opens the door for abuse by creating an incentive to book arrestees through the systeminstead of simply giving them a summons. In many instances, police have the discretion to do either one, but ICE will only be notified if the person is booked in and fingerprinted.

There has been tremendous opposition to S-Comm both here in Massachusetts and across the nation, yet the Obama Administration has remained committed to it. Why?

One important reason is the emerging surveillance state. S-Comm is a valuable source of biometric information on ALL the nation’s arrestees. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information lawsuit suggest that S-Comm is “the first of a number of biometric interoperability systems” that will make up the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, which Lockheed Martin has a $1 billion contract to design. 

NGI, which began to be implemented in March 2011, is reportedly being rolled out in stages.  S-Comm is an early test of interoperability, followed by the new Repository for Individuals of Special Concern (RISC). According to an article in Federal Computer Week, the FBI’s new mobile system enables police officers to check fingerprints of suspects at the scene and run digital images through the RISC database of 2.5 million sets of fingerprints of “appropriately suspected” terrorists, people on the Sex Offender Registry, and unspecified “others” with a match sent to the police officer in 10 seconds. 

NGI will not just be a depository of crime data. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) estimates that about a third of the data to be included in the NGI system will be collected from civil sources, including attorney bar applications, information about federal and state employees, and people who work with the elderly an children as well as immigration data. It will also include non-criminal biometric photos, eye scans and video feeds – information that enables the broad tracking of people as they move from place to place. 

When fully operational, the NGI database is expected to contain as many records of faces as there are fingerprints in the current system – and given the millions of private and public security cameras out there, and the FBI’s interest in a broad collection of facial recognition and other biometric data, you could well find yourself in the system without having ever committed a crime.

So if you think the immigration-law-enforcement-by-database represented by S-Comm only affects immigrants, think again!

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.