digital surveillance

The Rising Tide of Digital Surveillance in Immigration Enforcement

The landscape of immigration enforcement is undergoing a seismic shift, with digital surveillance taking center stage. A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice has cast a spotlight on this transformation, revealing a staggering increase in the number of migrants subjected to electronic monitoring by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This surge in digital surveillance represents not only a significant expansion in the agency's oversight capabilities but also raises profound questions about privacy, human rights, and the future of immigration policy.

Since its inception, ICE's Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) has seen exponential growth in its use of electronic monitoring, from a mere 1,300 individuals in 2005 to an astonishing 340,000 by November 2022. This surge is indicative of a broader trend toward digital forms of carceral control, one that extends beyond traditional detention facilities to encompass a vast network of electronically monitored individuals.

The reliance on electronic monitoring technologies, particularly those provided by companies like BI Inc., owned by the private prison conglomerate GEO Group, underscores a concerning shift towards privatization in immigration enforcement. This privatization not only blurs the lines of accountability but also introduces a profit motive into the realm of surveillance, raising ethical and legal concerns about the commodification of oversight.

The financial dynamics of this shift are stark, with GEO Group's profits from electronic monitoring doubling in the past year, even as revenues from its traditional prison operations decline. This trend towards electronic surveillance as a lucrative business model poses significant challenges, from the potential for exploitation due to high monitoring fees to the risk of corruption, as evidenced by scandals involving local officials and monitoring companies.

Moreover, the transition from wearable GPS devices to smartphone-based monitoring solutions like the SmartLink app and the VeriWatch smartwatch reveals a technological evolution that brings its own set of risks. The collection and long-term storage of sensitive personal data, including biometric information and immigration records, by these apps, expose individuals to heightened risks of data misuse and breaches of privacy.

The implications of this shift towards digital surveillance in immigration enforcement are profound. On one hand, electronic monitoring presents an alternative to traditional detention, potentially offering a less restrictive means of ensuring compliance with immigration proceedings. On the other hand, the expansion of such surveillance raises critical questions about the balance between security and civil liberties, the privatization of surveillance, and the potential for abuse.

As we grapple with these issues, it's essential to engage in a nuanced discussion about the role of technology in immigration enforcement, the safeguards necessary to protect individual rights, and the ethical considerations of outsourcing surveillance to private entities. The report from the Vera Institute of Justice serves as a crucial starting point for this conversation, shedding light on a rapidly evolving landscape that will shape the contours of immigration policy and enforcement for years to come.


Rae Ann Varona, "New Report Says ICE's Digital Monitoring Of Migrants Soaring," Law360, January 30, 2024.

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