A Canadian trade union said it had scored a surprising victory Friday in its three-year tech battle with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the United States, successfully persuading the media conglomerate Thomson Reuters to reevaluate its work selling personal data that the agency had used to investigate immigrants.
The British Columbia General Employees’ Union, which represents more than 80,000 public workers in Canada’s westernmost province, has used its role as a Thomson Reuters shareholder to push the company to analyze the human rights risks of its tens of millions of dollars in contracts with ICE and other government agencies.
The union has filed three shareholder proposals on the issue since 2020 and was preparing for further advocacy when the company announced that it had launched a “review of the human rights impacts of our investigative and research solutions,” company shareholder documents show.
“Tackling human rights risk isn’t just important for protecting shareholder value,” union President Stephanie Smith said in a statement. “Real human beings will be impacted by the results of these audits. … We eagerly await the results of the impact assessment this summer — and expect other data brokers are going to receive similar kinds of pressure from responsible investors in the future. This is just the beginning.”
Thomson Reuters spokeswoman Sarah Schmidt told The Washington Post on Friday that the company is reviewing all of its businesses, not just Clear, as part of a “human rights salience assessment” launched separately from the union’s work.
The company “continues to be engaged by DHS-ICE to support the agency’s criminal investigations and priority cases such as those involving threats to national security and/or public safety,” Schmidt said. “Thomson Reuters takes its role as a responsible corporate citizen seriously and has long believed that all companies should consider potential human rights risks related to their operations.”
A spokesperson for the union, when offered the company’s response, told The Post that the union was “ensured” that the investigation would include ICE contracts.
And Smith said in a statement: “Thomson Reuters drawing conclusions about these contracts before the human rights impact assessment has been completed undermines our confidence in the process, and makes it seem prejudged. If this is just a check-the-box exercise on the part of Thomson Reuters, clearly our work is not over. We will continue our investor engagement efforts until Thomson Reuters shows a real commitment to adequately assess and mitigate human rights risk.”
ICE investigators used a private utility database covering millions to pursue immigration violations
ICE officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Agency officials have said the database has been used to investigate serious crimes but have offered few details on how widely it is used, citing confidentiality rules around tools and techniques.
The company has said its databases are used by authorized police, government and corporate agencies to “catch bad actors, keep communities safe and investigate crimes, such as money laundering, human trafficking, and drug and weapons smuggling.”
The union has cited civil rights activists’ concerns that Clear had helped ICE detain immigrants and separate families not accused of any crime. About 20 percent of all company shareholders, including 70 percent of all independent shareholders, voted in support of a proposal urging a human rights review last summer.
The Post first reported last year that ICE officers had used Clear’s water, power and home utility records while pursuing immigration cases. A national utility group agreed to stop providing the data to Clear in December.
Some lawmakers have also argued that Clear is another example of police and government agencies buying sensitive data on private citizens they would not otherwise have the authority to collect on their own. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill last year, the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act, that would greatly restrict the practice.
Clear continues to have contracts with government agencies, though ICE’s contract for the service ended last year. ICE has instead bought access to personal information on Americans from other data brokers, including Equifax and LexisNexis, leading advocates to accuse the agency of violating “sanctuary city” policies designed to limit the information that police in some areas can share with federal immigration authorities.
The Thomson Reuters announcement was heralded as a positive step by the organizers of No Tech for ICE, a protest movement that has pushed tech companies to stop helping an agency it has criticized for raiding, surveilling and deporting immigrants.
Jacinta González, a senior campaign director at the Latino civil rights group Mijente, said in a statement, “Our undocumented community members deserve the right to feel safe and should not have to fear that their data will be shared to harm them based on their immigration status.”
The British Columbia union has argued that Thomson Reuters’s data work not only threatens to harm the union’s investment but poses ethical concerns for society at large. The union’s leaders said in 2020 that “an ethical, activist approach to investing provides superior results over the long-term from a financial and a social justice perspective.”