Smartphone surveillance
Court papers and a SmartLINK phone device are on a couch at the home of a man who faces deportation in San Diego. The app requires him to check in every Thursday. (Kristian Carreon/inewsource)

Federal authorities are rapidly expanding the use of a little-known smartphone technology to monitor hundreds of thousands of individuals facing deportation across the country.

More than 5,000 people in San Diego and Imperial counties are now monitored through the program –– up from about two dozen less than three years ago. 

Immigration authorities’ use of SmartLINK, which began in 2018, has exploded in the past year alongside concerns that the program could be surreptitiously collecting, sharing and monetizing data about its users. 

SmartLINK –– one of three alternative programs that the Biden administration has leaned into as it promises to reduce populations in detention centers –– uses biometric information such as facial comparison and GPS to track individuals under watch of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE.

Federal officials have billed SmartLINK as a more humane and cost efficient alternative to traditional detention, allowing individuals to to await their court proceedings at home rather than in one of ICE’s detention centers. 

The benefits of SmartLINK include increased court appearance rates, compliance with release conditions, reminders for court dates, resources for immigrants and direct messaging between immigrants, officers and case specialists, according to an ICE spokesperson. 

But critics say SmartLINK and other programs have had the effect of expanding ICE’s reach in the lives of immigrants, including those who would typically be released into the community without supervision to await their immigration hearings.

“What is clear in our communities and over the past couple of years is that these are not alternatives to detention,” said Cinthya Rodriguez, a organizer with Mijente, which advocates for “Latinx rights, justice, and radical change.” Latinx is a gender neutral term describing people of Latin American heritage.  

“They’re an extension of the violent and massive detention system,” Rodriguez said.

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