Thomson Reuters, one of the global giants of media publishing, has been quietly transforming itself into a tech company. But it has done it in a brazenly unjust way — by working closely with U.S. immigration enforcement, enabling them to track, arrest, and deport immigrants on a massive scale.
But shareholders of the Canadian corporation are pushing back. On Wednesday they’ll get to cast a vote that could force the company to issue a human rights risk report.
Since 2015, Thomson Reuters has sold over US$197 million in services to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, half of which has been in software services to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The company’s technology has been directly linked to deportations and raids across the U.S., potentially involving family separation and the detention of immigrants in conditions that violate their human rights. It has provided ICE a “360-degree view of U.S. residents’ lives,” according to an exposé in the New York Times, allowing immigration agents access to a wide variety of personal information on desired targets: names, addresses, credit scores, phone records, social media posts, utility bills, even fishing licenses and bankruptcy filings.
Basic constitutional protections in the U.S. prohibit the government from collecting this data itself. But those protections do not apply to agencies purchasing that data from third parties. In other words, immigration agents who cannot legally collect immigrants’ names and addresses need not worry; they can simply buy it from Thomson Reuters.
The company’s software even gives immigration agents the ability to track cars instantaneously by selling access to automated license plate readers—networks of surveillance cameras across the United States that photograph every single license plate that comes before them. That information is sent back to a central repository where agents can pinpoint targets, sometimes in real time.
And this is no passive relationship: Thomson Reuters employees are also directly embedded in ICE offices, helping agents track social media accounts and target immigration activists through so-called “risk mitigation services.” Agents can point to a local activist or protester, paint them as “risks” to ICE’s safety, and then target them through social media monitoring and other surveillance, even facilitating deportation of activists who are undocumented. There are over 1,000 documented cases of such retaliation in the U.S., and it’s continuing under the administration of President Biden.
Nor are these contracts old news: Thomson Reuters has active contracts worth at least US$52 million with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including US$39.1 million with ICE.
This has all largely been hidden from public view, but that could soon change. The company just announced it’s pivoting its business “from a content provider to a content-driven technology company.” It intends to grow its software and artificial intelligence business. U.S. government contracts, including with agencies like ICE, are a key area of growth for the company.
Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group in the United States, has been exposing the ties between companies like Thomson Reuters and immigration enforcement, releasing comprehensive research reports and organizing various communities against these corporate ties, raising greater public attention and action. Over 1,700 legal professionals in 2019, for instance, demanded Thomson Reuters cut its contracts with ICE.
For years, Thomson Reuters has been known for two things: it houses one of the most influential global news organizations in the world, Reuters News, which over its 170 year history has become a gold standard in international mainstream news-gathering. And second: it is owned by David Thomson, the richest man in Canada and the thirty-third wealthiest in the world, with a net worth of US$45 billion.
Now Thomson Reuters is admitting what has been true for a while: it is a tech company more than it is a media company and makes far more from its “professional services” than its news division. As a tech company, its human rights due diligence – or lack thereof – falls far behind its peers and competitors, though. This should leave us worried.
Investors are saying enough is enough: The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), where I work, has filed a shareholder proposal at the company that asks for a human rights audit. It goes to a vote Wednesday.
In the fairly obscure investment world, the proposal is gaining significant attention. It was endorsed by the world’s two largest and most influential proxy advisory firms, which advise investors and fund managers on investments totalling in the tens of trillions of dollars. Other high profile institutional investors, lawyers, and human rights experts are also on board.
Our proposal is simple: we’ve asked for a human rights risk report to understand key risks to the company. Given Thomson Reuters is a tech company by its own admission, we want it to compare its approach to other prominent technology companies. This is not only important, it’s reasonable and entirely achievable.
The billionaire Thomson family owns a two-thirds controlling share in the company. This means that a shareholder vote can’t possibly pass. But we have not let that stop us. The resolution we filed last year received nearly 30 percent of shareholder votes not controlled by the Thomson family, putting the company on notice. We think more investors will join us this year, and that this issue won’t go away until Thomson Reuters acts.
Thomson Reuters is one of Canada’s and the world’s best known media companies. Its news division has a sterling reputation across the globe, yet its rapid pivot to become a tech and data broker is being done on the backs of deported immigrants, who have been surveilled, targeted, and arrested with the help of its technology.
The company and its investors have a choice Wednesday: continue facilitating an anti-immigrant crackdown across the border, or live up to international human rights standards and stop providing data and technology for deportations.