While the Supreme Court Deliberates, the Digital Muslim Ban Is Moving Forward

ICE’s Extreme Vetting Initiative Is A Reality

May 10, 2018

Imagine if tweeting about foreign policy got you banned from entering the country. That reality isn't so far off with a new initiative quietly moving forward under the Department of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). As we await a Supreme Court decision on the widely watched Muslim ban, ICE is already implementing a new "extreme digital vetting" program that will also have intense consequences for our communities.

Last November, ICE first began courting tech companies to help develop a system that borders on dystopian science fiction. ICE's dream project would rely on algorithms that comb through social media platforms of visa holders in bulk and on an ongoing basis and make automated decisions on which individuals may be considered high-risk. Further, the algorithm will apparently be able to determine who will be “a positive contributing member of society.” In other words, if you're a visa holder and happen to post something publicly that a machine tags as problematic, you may be instantly subjected to additional scrutiny and hassle before a human has even examined the context. The inherent vagueness of how to define "problematic" social media content for the purpose of an algorithm will almost certainly lead to the prejudiced singling out of entire communities. Additionally, the only other language ICE has instructed a potential algorithm understand besides English, is Arabic.

Over fifty data scientists and machine learning experts made that exact point in an open letter to ICE, urging the department to halt a project that they call both discriminatory and ineffective. In particular, the letter points out that ICE's desire to automatically flag immigrants who may intend to commit terrorism or other crimes would "generate an unacceptable number of errors" and yield "a very large number of false positives." They concluded that "no computational methods can provide reliable or objective assessments" and that such a system would inevitably "arbitrarily flag groups of immigrants under a veneer of objectivity."

Despite these strong objections from experts in the field, ICE has moved forward with its plans, changing the project's title from the original and blatantly political "Extreme Vetting Initiative" to the more benign and ambiguous “Visa Lifecycle Vetting Initiative.” But make no mistake, the original intent behind the program -itself inspired by portions of the original Muslim ban- remains intact. Budget plans released by DHS itself indicate that ICE has already allocated funding for the project and may begin formally soliciting proposals from companies to build the new system as early as this month.

In addition to the letter from industry experts, other prominent tech companies have already staked their position on the issue. During last month’s marathon hearings with Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO was asked explicitly about ICE’s plans, and he promised that his company would not assist in any manner. When ICE begins formally soliciting tech companies to assist in building the platform, it will be more necessary than ever for companies like Facebook to honor that commitment and hold both the administration and their fellow industry leaders accountable. As a matter of principle, no company should aid the federal government in such a blatantly ineffective and discriminatory project.

Congress also has the power to exercise oversight over ICE’s plans. In addition to the line of questioning in Zuckerberg’s hearing (from Senator Mazie Hirono), the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter in March to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen condemning the proposed initiative. If plans for the new system do indeed move forward, Congress has the responsibility to interrogate what would constitute a gross misuse of ICE’s allocated funding.

Last November, MPAC joined 56 civil rights and community organizations in registering our concerns with ICE’s plans to build a digital Muslim ban. That effort was spearheaded by the Brennan Center for Justice, which continues to maintain a helpful resource page on the topic. The Trump administration is hoping the relative lack of attention over this initiative will allow it to begin discriminating against visa holders without consequence. We must remain vigilant in our engagement with Congress, our communities, and the tech sector to ensure that doesn’t happen.



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