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US data broker LexisNexis has allegedly violated privacy and consumer protection rights in Illinois by collecting and combining extensive personal information on people without their consent and selling it to a range of third parties, including federal immigration authorities, according to a lawsuit filed by immigrants’ rights groups.
LexisNexis, although best known as a legal research tool, is one of the world’s biggest aggregators of personal and commercial data, amassing millions of records that it sells on to thousands of private companies, government bodies and law enforcement agencies.
Filed on 16 August in the Circuit Court of Cook County by four immigration advocacy groups – Just Futures Law, Legal Action Chicago, Mijente, and Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) – the lawsuit further alleges that LexisNexis’s data collection practices help to facilitate government surveillance and tracking of protestors, immigrants, and other communities of colour.
“LexisNexis sells consumers’ data through an online platform it calls Accurint,” says the 33-page complaint. “Accurint offers an encyclopedic summary of a person’s existence; its database aggregates both public and non-public information and contains profiles on millions of people.
“This information includes names, addresses, emails, criminal histories, phone numbers, past jobs, former marriages, relatives, associates, motor vehicle information, bankruptcies, liens, judgments, real property records, social media information, and business and employment information. Much of this data is drawn from day-to-day consumer transactions.”
The complaint says the firm’s technology “poses a grave threat to civil liberties” because, through the use of Accurint, law enforcement officers can “surveil and track people based on information that these officers would not, in many cases, otherwise be able to obtain without a subpoena, court order, or other legal process”. It adds: “The officers who have access to this data include Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees.”
The complaint further details how LexisNexis “makes significant profits” from its collection, aggregation and sale of people’s personal identifying information by charging users for each component of Accurint’s search functions, and offering “tailored subscription plans for law enforcement, government agencies, law firms, private investigators, insurers, healthcare organisations and collections agencies, respectively.”
In April 2021, The Intercept reported that LexisNexis had signed a $16.8m contract to sell information to ICE. Separate documents obtained by Just Futures Law via a freedom of information request revealed that ICE searched LexisNexis’s database more than a million times, generating more than 300,000 reports, in the six months between March and September 2021.
“Potential ICE uses of data broker technology include determining immigration status, determining current home address or location in order to conduct raids/arrests, and learning about immigrants’ families through their associations,” says the complaint. “Upon information and belief, ICE has used Accurint for each of these purposes, and more.
“Accurint allows ICE to conduct arbitrary digital searches of plaintiffs, their members, and other Illinois residents, instantly accessing their sensitive personal data without privacy safeguards, warrants, or a showing of reasonableness. Further, inaccuracies plaguing the technology increase the risk of misidentification.”
Computer Weekly contacted LexisNexis about the lawsuit and its contract with ICE, but was told the company was unable to comment on pending litigation.
In a Q&A on its website regarding the ICE contract, LexisNexis said that the technology “is strictly used for identifying individuals with serious criminal backgrounds” and not to track those who may have committed minor offences.
It added: “Any suggestion that the tool is an instrument to help separate families at the border is false. The tool promotes public safety and is not used to prevent legal immigration, nor is it used to remove individuals from the United States unless they pose a serious threat to public safety, including child trafficking, drug smuggling and other serious criminal activity.”
Commenting on the lawsuit, Sejal Zota, legal director of Just Futures Now, said: “It is deeply alarming how the government is exploiting legal loopholes to obtain America’s most sensitive information without a warrant, subpoenas, or any legal process whatsoever. LexisNexis’s unethical practices as the middleman for ICE aid the deportation and separation of our immigrant community members – and we intend to put a stop to it.”
Antonio Gutierrez, a strategic coordinator for OCAD, added: “We have directly experienced how surveillance, data collection, and interactions with law enforcement result in mass incarceration and terrorisation of our community. LexisNexis is violating individuals’ privacy rights by providing addresses, phone numbers, relatives’ names and more through the data being sold to agencies like ICE without their permission.”