ICE wants to use facial recognition to track people threatening its agents online

Prosecutions for online threats against law enforcement are fairly uncommon.
Prosecutions for online threats against law enforcement are fairly uncommon.
Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) believes at least 12 of its senior officials are potential targets of violent attacks, according to a request for bids reviewed by Quartz.

“Over the last two years, ICE has experienced an increased level of external threat activity directed towards its Senior leaders, personnel and facilities,” the solicitation says. “Much of this threat activity originates from social media and online postings and has since expanded to physical attacks on ICE facilities and the homes of ICE employees. In order to prevent adversaries from successfully targeting ICE Senior leaders, personnel and facilities, ICE requires real-time threat mitigation and monitoring services.”

The document, which estimates that no fewer than 115 additional ICE employees and facilities are also at risk, says ICE is interested in monitoring social media and the dark web, as well as harnessing facial recognition capabilities that would find “all relevant information associated with the subject,” based on an individual photograph. The agency would also like to know which websites someone visited just before making a threat, obtain any deleted threats or relevant messages they may have posted, and have the ability to pinpoint a target’s exact location.

Enforcing US president Donald Trump’s so-called zero-tolerance immigration policy has led to “unprecedented public scrutiny and criticism,” according to the Associated Press, which cited ICE officials who said employees have been “threatened at their homes” and have had personal information exposed online.

ICE has separated the apparent targets, and corresponding requests for support, into three “tiers.” Tier 1 will consist of ICE’s senior leadership, with a “minimum 12 targets,” and upon request, members of their immediate families. Tier 2 will consist of “ICE employees and facilities in general,” with a minimum 100 targets, and tier 3 will be an ad hoc group of at least 15 specific ICE employees or facilities.

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ICE is requesting both constant, real-time monitoring of dozens of sites online, as well as “proactive monitoring.” Along with an overall analysis of social media sentiment over a set period of time, ICE is looking for a contractor that can analyze individuals and organizations making threats against it. This includes creating psychological profiles, aggregating past threats they may have posted on social media, their proclivity for violence, and information regarding their ability to carry out a threat, such as postings that include pictures of weapons, references to acts of violence, or “empathy or affiliation with a group which has violent tendencies.”

Although ICE claims at least 127 employees and facilities are under threat, prosecutions for threatening ICE agents are fairly uncommon. Last year, authorities arrested a New Jersey man for threatening ICE agents on Twitter. One tweet read: “We need to kill all ICE agents.”

In a notable 2018 case, authorities arrested a 33-year-old man for tweeting an offer to pay $500 to anyone who killed an ICE agent. The government considered the tweet the same as seeking a hitman to pull off a “contract murder,” and charged him with making interstate threats.

Defense lawyers argued that their client was simply “making a hyperbolic statement in a political environment where the president of the United States and his supporters repeatedly use similar language to make a political point.” This past December a jury found him not guilty.

ICE did not respond to Quartz’s requests for comment.