In February 2018, King County passed a law prohibiting the sharing of personal information with immigration officials without a judicial warrant. Yet over the next year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers continued to access an online jail database more than 1,000 times, a report from the county auditor revealed Tuesday.
In doing so, the officers were able to see photos, physical descriptions, addresses and aliases for more than 40,000 bookings into King County jails. “With photos and addresses, federal agents can more easily identify and locate people, potentially leading to the detention or removal of county residents,” the report said.
In some cases, jail officials also collected citizenship information. This was ostensibly to notify foreign consulates that their citizens were detained, but the information was not obtained with informed consent and could be subject to a data breach, the report said.
In addition, the county sheriff’s office gave ICE two dozen unredacted case files between January 2018 and May 2019, according to the report.
The revelations highlight the sometimes stunning disconnect between policy and practice unknown even to top officials, never mind the people affected. A similar scenario happened at the state level last year, when The Seattle Times reported the state Department of Licensing was routinely sharing photos and driver’s license applications with ICE, unbeknownst to Gov. Jay Inslee, who had ordered state officials not to cooperate with immigration enforcement.
This week, The Washington Post reported that ICE and the FBI have been using such photos from licensing agencies across the country to apply facial-recognition technology.
After discovering King County’s data disclosures, the auditor in April notified the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, which cut off access to ICE within five working days. The sheriff’s office also “immediately changed” its procedures, according to spokesman Sgt. Ryan Abbott.
Still, Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), called the revelations “profoundly disappointing and disturbing.”
County Council Chair Rod Dembowski said he was frustrated. “You pass a law. The executive is in charge of implementing it.”
Why that didn’t happen is not clear. County Executive Dow Constantine, in a July 1 letter to King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson, agreed with her recommendations for training and a concrete plan to protect residents’ privacy, but offered no explanation for the past failure to do so.
“It should be noted we know of no circumstance where federal agents used this data to detain or remove county residents,” he noted.
Dembowski said his understanding is that ICE, along with other law-enforcement agencies, had used the jail database for as long as a decade. After the council passed its ordinance, nobody deactivated the ICE accounts. Records showed that 15 ICE officers continued to log on, according to the auditor’s report.
ICE agents knew the database was supposed to be closed to them, Dembowski said, calling what they did a “deliberate violation of the law to get the information in any way they could.”
“ICE does not comment on investigation techniques,” ICE spokeswoman Tanya Roman said in a statement. It also criticized sanctuary policies, such as the ordinance passed by the County Council. “ICE maintains that cooperation by local agencies is an indispensable component of promoting public safety.”
King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht was unavailable for comment about the case files shared by her office, according to her spokesman.
A letter from her to the auditor promised to develop a plan to safeguard privacy.
Moving forward, Barón of NWIRP said he would like to know exactly what steps the county is taking.
Dembowski said he wants to know if ICE saved the information its officers saw online, and if so, whether the agency will agree to destroy it. John Diaz, a former Seattle police chief recently installed as the interim head of the county jails, said he would make the call, according to Dembowski.
The council chair said the county is also seeking advice from lawyers and others about best practices in such a situation. He’s wondering, for starters, whether the county should notify those who had their privacy compromised.