A secretive utilities data exchange could be selling out your name and home address to immigration enforcement.
If you are one of 171 million people* who has obtained electricity, gas, water, cable, phone, or internet services from a company in the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange (NCTUE) — a consumer credit bureau whose members include giants like AT&T and Verizon as well as regional providers such as Piedmont Natural Gas — a growing body of evidence suggests that your name and address may have been shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Whether or not this is the case depends on confirming just one missing link.
It all begins with ICE’s $21 million contract with Thomson Reuters, an information services conglomerate that provides the agency with access to a database called CLEAR. Hooked up to analytical software built by Palantir — a data company whose services are “mission critical” to ICE and which has recently filed to go public — CLEAR makes it easier than ever for ICE to search for its targets among the population at large. Billions of pieces of data, including names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, are pulled into the database from all corners of U.S. residents’ lives — driver’s license and vehicle registrations, employment and property records, criminal histories, and even consumer credit reports.
To help investigators track down people who are “not easily traceable via traditional sources” — like undocumented immigrants, who often avoid or are excluded from services such as taking out loans and obtaining licenses — CLEAR boasts that it also includes millions of customer records from electric, gas, satellite, water, and telephone providers, which, according to marketing materials sent by Thomson Reuters directly to law enforcement officials, may offer “the only current and accurate address and phone number data available.” The implication of this is obvious: even if you don’t have a criminal record, don’t drive a car, don’t own any property, and have never taken out a bank loan, you can be made traceable just by keeping the lights on and the water running and the heat working in your home.
Where exactly do all of these records come from? CLEAR has amassed over 400 million customer profiles from more than 80 utility providers across the country, with a focus on the top 50 companies nationwide — but it hasn’t publicly named a single one of them.
All we know is that these records are furnished to Thomson Reuters by the consumer credit bureau and data broker Equifax. Equifax, however, is notable for its long history of involvement with a group of utility companies called the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange (NCTUE), a credit bureau whose members share customers’ contact information and payment histories amongst each other. The purpose of this is twofold: companies can make better financial risk assessments, especially on customers with little-to-no traditional credit history, by looking at a more robust set of records — that is, a history of paying their utility bills. But the sharing of records can also help companies track down customers who left unpaid balances behind — whose “most current contact data” shows up in the NCTUE database when they sign up with another member company. And since 2002, Equifax has served as the exclusive manager of this database.
So we know that utilities companies contribute to the NCTUE database, which is exclusively managed by Equifax. We also know that Equifax is the provider of utilities records to Thomson Reuters CLEAR.
Here’s the missing link: we don’t know for sure if NCTUE is indeed the source of the records that Equifax furnishes to CLEAR, making it ICE’s source of address information from utility companies.
But there are several reasons to suspect that it is. First, NCTUE seems to have specifically intended for Equifax to make these kinds of transactions. In a letter to the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, a representative for NCTUE cited Equifax’s “commitment to find and exploit opportunities for third-party access to exchange data” as a reason for their partnership. Revenue generated from data sales would pass back to NCTUE members to “defray their costs,” forming one of the “substantial, ever-increasing economic incentives” that motivate the arrangement. The agreement signed by the two entities also reflects an intention to share this data, as it expressly allows Equifax to integrate NCTUE data into its own products and deliver them to companies outside of the consortium.
Second, Equifax has already shared customer payment data from NCTUE in collaboration with several other companies — including data broker and Thomson Reuters competitor, LexisNexis. These companies all used NCTUE data to create models for credit scoring, but nothing prevents Equifax from sharing this data for other purposes. And finally, with all of this in mind, it seems far less likely to be a coincidence that the NCTUE database boasts almost exactly the same number of records as those that end up in Thomson Reuters CLEAR: over 400 million from over 85 companies in the former, compared to over 400 million from over 80 companies in the latter.
A Thomson Reuters spokesperson said in a statement that the company “[doesn’t] have a relationship with NCTUE.” This response is ambiguous, since Thomson Reuters may be obtaining the data through its relationship with Equifax, not with NCTUE. Representatives from NCTUE, Equifax, and ICE did not respond to requests for comment. We will update this post with any additional information we receive from the companies.
NCTUE advertises that its sharing of utilities records is something that empowers underserved, underbanked, “multicultural” communities, helping lift access to services for those who may have difficulty establishing credit otherwise. But if ICE can access this data, then in a twist reminiscent of ICE’s exploitation of state laws extending driving privileges to undocumented people, it seems that a service supposedly intended to help vulnerable people may actually be perverted to target those very same groups.
The story of how your utilities data makes its way to ICE is just one part of a much bigger story about how ICE has, in the course of the last decade, transformed into an agency able to spy on U.S. citizens. With access to massive amounts of data gathered from all corners of our lives, ICE is no longer dependent on I-9 audits and police department records to pull people into its deportation machine. We are all helping to feed ICE the information it uses to identify its targets, even when we run the water or turn on the heat.
*Since the original writing of this post, the video citing this number has been removed from Equifax’s official Youtube channel as well as the NCTUE website. On October 13th, 2020, a few months into our investigation of possible sharing with ICE, Equifax uploaded an edited version of the video with only one change: it no longer contains the frame showing that the dataset contains “171M unique consumers.”
Nina Wang is a Policy Associate with the Center. You can follow her on Twitter here.