While major tech firms such as Apple, Facebook and Google have joined over 2,800 individual tech workers in pledging not to assist the incoming Trump administration with the construction of a mandatory registry of Muslims, there is one small problem.
Such a database already exists, and anyone can buy it for less than $20,000.
NextMark bills itself as the Google of mailing lists. It’s a search engine that pulls together over 60,000 different lists of people offered for sale by over 1,400 different organizations. A search for the term “Muslim” yields dozens of results – including multiple comprehensive databases containing more than a million names, addresses, emails and other pieces of personal information for American Muslims.
The lists are compiled and sold by data brokers, companies that aggregate information on people from a variety of sources, ranging from government records to web browsing histories.
The information is used for purposes such as verifying someone’s identity for fraud detection and powering electronic “people search” products. The most common use for this data is to help advertisers better target their marketing campaigns at segments of the population most likely to purchase their products.
Dylan Lehotsky, vice president of business development sales at Exact Data, one of the firms offering a list of American Muslims, told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that the complete list could be purchased for around $17,000. A representative from another broker, Sprint Data Solutions, which has a list it says comprises 95 percent of the Muslims living in the United States, said the pricing on a list of more than 1 million names would cost $0.014 per record.
Lehotsky added that the majority of the data offered in his company’s Muslim list wasn’t collected by Exact Data. Instead, the information was purchased from the Little Rock, Arkansas-based data broker Acxiom, one of the largest firms in the data brokerage industry. Exact Data augmented that data with information about user email addresses it had gathered independently and resold to the public.
Lehotsky said the company would exercise discretion if it believed a customer would be using one of its lists for discriminatory or unsavory purposes. If the Ku Klux Klan came calling, he said, the company would be unlikely to complete the sale.
However, he said he hadn’t considered the implications of a government agency buying one of the company’s lists because the government likely would go straight to the data’s original source – Acxiom.
Acxiom told CNN’s Selena Larson that it would not help build a Muslim registry. Two other companies, Recorded Future and CoreLogic, said they similarly would refuse to help. When Larson asked Oracle – which owns data brokers BlueKai and Datalogix – the company declined to comment. Oracle CEO Safra Catz has joined Donald Trump’s presidential transition team.
Even so, refusal by one data broker to assemble a registry means relatively little in the grand scheme of things because there are more than 5,000 data brokerage firms worldwide, and it is a common practice for one data broker to purchase information from another.
All it would take is a single firm willing to cooperate, or being compelled to cooperate, with the government for the Trump administration to have a large list of Muslims to serve as a reference point for a mandatory registration database.
Information on Muslims held by one data broker could be acquired by another more willing to cooperate with federal authorities and then resold to the government.
“Data brokers provide data not only to end-users, but also to other data brokers,” noted a 2014 Federal Trade Commission study of the data brokerage industry.
There’s nothing inherently wrong, or even especially suspicious, about a company collecting this sort of information, which has legitimate uses. The description of a list of practicing American Muslims offered by Sprint Data Solutions notes that “this file has turned GREAT results for middle east relief efforts. Donors with generous donations have come from this database and results continue to produce good results.”
These types of lists often are employed by organizations actively advocating for the rights of American Muslims. The Council for American-Islamic Relations, one of the most prominent Muslim rights groups in the U.S., purchased lists with the names and contact information of over a million American Muslims from the data broker Aristotle Inc.
“A list isn’t inherently good or bad,” said Robert McCaw, the council’s director of government affairs. “It’s all in how you use it.”
The council found the data helpful in its outreach efforts, but McCaw noted it was imperfect.
Lists drawn from consumer data often contain out-of-date information, and while ones that pull the info of registered voters with common Muslim last names are more current, they have a tendency to exclude Muslims in the African American, Latino or white communities.
“The Trump administration could easily build a similar list, but it would always be incomplete,” McCaw said. “It’s not 100 percent reliable.”
If Trump does create a Muslim registry, its actual form could be a revival of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. Shortly after the election, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has advised Trump on immigration issues, was photographed carrying plans for future Department of Homeland Security efforts into a meeting with the president-elect. The paper suggested Trump should “update and reintroduce the NSEERS screening and tracking system.”
Launched exactly one year after 9/11 in the name of preventing terrorism, the system increased scrutiny of male immigrants over the age of 16 on noncitizen visas from two dozen majority Muslim countries and North Korea.
Immigrants subject to the registration system were required to undergo annual in-person check-ins with immigration officials and notify the federal government every time they changed addresses.
Failure to comply with these rules could result in deportation, and the rules were confusing and poorly publicized – leading many people covered under the program to miss appointments by mistake. The government placed nearly 14,000 people in deportation proceedings as a result of the program.
The Department of Homeland Security effectively shuttered the program in 2011 by removing all 25 countries from the list – technically leaving it alive but dormant. That strategy left a lot of civil libertarians worried because the database still exists and could be reactivated if Kobach’s proposal gains Trump’s approval.
Groups from across the political spectrum, ranging from the ACLU on the left to the Cato Institute on the right, called on President Barack Obama to delete the database before his administration leaves office. In mid-December, Obama obliged, announcing the formal end to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System – effective immediately.
While the Council for American-Islamic Relations welcomed the system’s termination, McCaw said he worries it could push the incoming administration to funnel its energies into another controversial database that targets many American Muslims – the terrorist watch list.
Expanding that list would have the benefit of being an existing program that doesn’t need to be built from the ground up, like a registration database of all Muslims, or overcome institutional hurdles placed by the previous administration.
Whereas a mandatory Muslim registry would be highly public, the federal government’s centralized terrorist watch list is kept secret, which would keep the program from attracting significant public scrutiny. That secrecy is McCaw’s sticking point.
“There are a select few Americans who can find out if they are on the watch list through their travel patterns when they are denied services on airlines or are required to undergo additional screening at the airport,” he said. “Those are Americans placed on the no-fly list or the selectee list.”
“However, Americans who are in the terrorism database but not on the no-fly list or the selectee list have no knowledge of their placement on the watch list, no knowledge of the government’s surveillance of them and no means to challenge it.”
This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Nikki Frick.