Last year, Sens. Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich revealed that the Department of Homeland Security had tracked millions of wire money transfers by Americans. Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request from WIRED, we’ve learned of a legal tool used by another part of DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to extract data from elementary schools, news organizations, and abortion clinics.
Called 1509 customs summonses, these requests are authorized by law to be used in criminal investigations about illegal imports or unpaid customs duties.
WIRED examined ICE’s subpoena tracking database and found agents issued more than 170,00 customs summonses from the beginning of 2016 through August 2022. Congress granted this power to ICE to allow it to efficiently follow up on customs issues without having to wait for a warrant from a judge.
Among the targets of ICE customs summonses are a youth soccer league, surveillance video from a major abortion provider in Illinois, student records from an elementary school in Georgia, health records from a state university’s student health service, data from three boards of elections or election departments, and data from a Lutheran organization that aids refugees.
WIRED reports: “In at least two instances, agents at ICE used the custom summons to pressure news organizations to reveal information about their sources.” In 2017, ICE had also illegally used a custom summons to try to force Twitter to reveal the owner of an anonymous account.
ICE spokesmen told WIRED that there were reasonable explanations for these requests, including investigations into the spread of child sex abuse material. But many civil liberties observers are skeptical of any claim made by federal agencies. ACLU’s Nathan Freed Wessler said that without access to the underlying subpoenas, there is no way to tell if ICE had abused its authority.
This is a clear case where Congressional oversight is mandatory. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees must investigate the rationales for these customs summonses – especially those that were aimed at news organizations. And they should take the next step by passing the PRESS Act to protect journalists from being compelled by federal prosecutors to reveal their sources.