The U.S. authorities expanded the use of a smartphone application during the coronavirus pandemic in order to ensure that immigrants released from detention attend deportation hearings. Advocates claim this violates their privacy, and makes them feel deprived.

Over 125,000 people, many of whom were stopped at the U.S. border with Mexico, are now required to download SmartLink onto their smartphones. This is a significant increase from the 5,000 installed three years ago. Officials can easily verify their status by asking immigrants to take a photo or to make or receive calls.

The technology is easier than an ankle monitor but advocates argue that tethering immigrants is unfair because many have paid bond to be released from U.S. detention centers while their cases are processed by the backlog immigration courts. The vast majority of cases in immigration proceedings are not criminal and are therefore administrative.

Advocates expressed concern about the U.S. government using data from the app that tracks immigrants’ location and contacts to arrest and round up others for immigration violations.

Jacinta González, senior campaign director at Mijente Latino rights group, said that it was quite shocking to see how quickly this technology has become so popular in the past few years. It makes it easier for the government track more people.

During the pandemic, the use of the app by Immigration and Customs Enforcement skyrocketed. As President Joe Biden called for the Department of Justice, the app grew even more. His administration also supports so-called alternative detention in order to ensure that immigrants are present at required appointments, such as hearings in immigration court.

The number of cases before the U.S. immigration court system, which is notoriously overloaded, has increased to 1.6million. Many immigrants have to wait years for a hearing before a judge, who will decide if they are allowed to stay in the country legally or deported.

The U.S. Immigration authorities have decreased the number of immigrant detention facilities since the pandemic and promoted detention alternatives like the app.

The SmartLink app is a product of BI Inc, a Boulder-based subsidiary owned by private prison company The GEO Group. GEO, which manages immigration detention facilities under other contracts for ICE, declined to comment.

Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (part of the Department of Homeland Security) declined to answer any questions about the app but stated in a statement that “detention alternatives are an effective method of tracking other noncitizens who have been released from DHS custody and are awaiting their immigration proceedings.”

Recent congressional testimony revealed that SmartLink app is cheaper than detention. It costs $4.36 per day to place a person on a temporary detention option and $140 to keep them in a facility. Budget estimates by agency show that.

Advocates claim that immigrants who have spent months in detention facilities but were released on bond are now being added to the app. Parents and children seeking asylum at the southwest border are also included on the app.

SmartLink was initially intended to be a more intensive option to ankle monitors for immigrant detained and released. However, it is now being widely used on immigrant with no criminal record and not detained at all, according Julie Mao, deputy director of Just Futures, an immigrant rights group. In the past, immigrants were only required to attend periodic check-ins at agency offices.

Mao stated that they are concerned that this will be used as an excessive standard for all those who are in the immigration system.

Most people attend their hearings at immigration court, but some skip them. These cases see immigration judges issue deportation order in the absence of immigrants, while deportation agents are charged with finding them and returning them to their home countries. According to court data, around 25% of the cases decided by immigration judges in 2018 were deportation orders.

Advocates raised concerns about the effectiveness of monitoring systems in these cases. They noted that someone who wants to avoid a court hearing will cease checking in with deportation officers and trash their phone.

They expressed concern that SmartLink could allow deportation agents to track immigrants more often than they realize. This is similar to how commercial apps can access location data from people’s smartphones.

Similar apps are used by law enforcement agencies in the criminal justice system to track defendants who are awaiting trial or have already served their sentences. Robert Magaletta is the chief executive officer of Shadowtrack Technologies in Louisiana. He said that while the technology does not continuously track defendants, it records their location at check-ins. The company also offers a separate, full time tracking service for law enforcement agencies using tamperproof wrist watches.

ICE stated that the app was not constantly monitoring immigrants in a 2019 Congressional Research Service Report. Advocates said that even short snapshots of individuals’ locations taken during check-ins could be used to locate friends or coworkers without proper immigration authorization. They pointed out that immigration investigators gathered GPS data from the ankle watches of Mississippi poultry plant workers in order to build a case against a large-scale workplace raid.

The app is a big improvement for immigrants who have been released from detention using ankle monitors that can irritate their skin and sometimes beep loudly, according to Mackenzie Mackins, an Immigration Attorney in Los Angeles. She said it’s more discreet and less painful than the ankle monitors, which made her clients feel like criminals.

SmartLink can be stressful, especially for immigrant who arrived in the U.S. to escape persecution in their home countries.

Roseanne Flores is a paralegal at Hilf and Hilf, Troy, Michigan. She said that she received panicked calls from clients recently because the app was not working. Instead of reporting in person to immigration offices, they had to do so.

Flores stated, “I see the pain it causes the clients.” “My heart goes out for them.”