A group of utility companies was giving the data of millions of Americans to Equifax — which sold it to ICE.
Here’s a bit of news that will make you go, “Hold on, what was happening?” The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange, one of the country’s largest utility trade groups, will stop providing the personal information of more than 170 million people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which was using it to track people with immigration violations.
Okay, let’s take a step back quick because, uh, what?
The National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange (NCTUE) is a group of telecom and utility companies that pool data from customers, including names, home addresses, Social Security numbers, and payment details. Yes, the companies that you pay to keep your gas, electric, water, and even TV and internet operating are all collecting that information and keeping it in a big ol’ database. The NCTUE claims to have about 500 million records in total.
What does the group do with all that information? Well, it had been providing it to Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting bureaus — and the one best known for getting hacked and leaking the Social Security numbers of nearly every adult in America. The groups had a sort of symbiotic relationship: Equifax would perform credit checks on current and potential customers for NCTUE members, and in exchange, it gained access to a huge swath of consumer data.
But Equifax didn’t just use that information to create more complete credit scores. It also sold that data, monetizing all the information that the NCTUE collected and provided access to. Purchasers of this data from Equifax included Thomson Reuters, which maintains a database that is used by private investigators, government agencies, and law enforcement.
ICE is one of the organizations that would use that data, and it paid a pretty penny to access it: upwards of $20 million, according to previous contracts between the organizations. According to the Post, ICE would use that information to track down people who allegedly violated immigration laws.
There is no way for someone to know that their information is being provided to a government agency or that their activity is being tracked or monitored. Paying your gas or internet bill are not activities that have any direct interaction with the federal government, the way that applying for a driver’s license or filing tax documents would, so there’s no real inkling that you’re handing the goods over to the feds. Maybe there should be a built-in expectation in our minds that anything and everything that we do is being tracked, sold, and available to the government — but yikes, how fucked up is that?
The good news here is that the NCTUE will stop providing access to its massive database to Equifax, which means the credit bureau can no longer sell it to other providers, and ICE will no longer be able to access it. The bad news is that ICE is already seeking new sources of data to track people with. And it’ll likely find some other broker who is more than happy to sell out millions of people to make a buck.