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Donald Trump

Thousands of Trump officials’ data released as outrage over Mexico border separations turns to ‘human flesh search engine’

Twice in the past week, activists have posted swathes of information on US government employees linked to the controversial policy to split parents and children at the border

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 10:20pm

The public shaming of high-level, widely known Trump administration officials has expanded to the divulging of personal information about rank-and-file government employees who are carrying out the president’s least popular policies.

Twice in the past week, activists have posted information on employees of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that carried out Donald Trump’s policy that required children to be separated from parents arrested for crossing the US border illegally. Amid national bipartisan outrage, Trump abruptly reversed course last week.

Sam Lavigne, an adjunct professor at New York University, last Tuesday posted data on 1,595 ICE employees which he pulled from LinkedIn profiles, a career networking platform. Lavigne posted the material on GitHub, a hosting platform popular with software developers.

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“I leave it here with the hope that researchers, journalists and activists will find it useful,” Lavigne wrote in a blog posting on Medium that has since been taken down.

Lavigne declined to speak on the record about the data.

Within hours, GitHub, Medium and Twitter took offline any reference to the archived profiles of the ICE employees or links to the material.

WikiLeaks, the radical transparency group that has published millions of documents over the past decade, on Friday posted what it called ICE Patrol, a website with biographical information on 9,243 people it said were employees of ICE or linked to the agency.

The group said in a tweet that the information would increase accountability, “especially in light of the actions taken by ICE lately, such as the separation of children and parents at the US border”.

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The divulging of the names of lower-level employees comes amid broader debate about shaming tactics used against Trump’s senior advisers.

Such vigilante behaviour is not unheard of across the globe. In China, notably, online shaming has led to suicides and severe public hounding as internet users collectively hunt down and publicly abuse for behaviour they disagree with.

Chinese refer to the public online scorn as the “human flesh search engine”.

In the US, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson faced protesters when she dined at a Mexican restaurant in Washington last week, as was Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Trump on immigration policy and architect of the “zero tolerance” policy that led to the family separations, at another Mexican restaurant.

And last week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in rural Lexington because the staff and owners disagreed with Trump’s policies.

Splinter, an English language news and opinion website owned by Univision Communications, the huge Spanish-language media company, published a story last week with Miller’s personal mobile number.

When Splinter tweeted links to its story, others tweeted Miller’s phone number. Twitter temporarily took down those accounts, saying the divulging of such personal information violated its terms of service. It demanded account holders delete tweets with the number. Miller later changed his phone number.

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As the nation’s divisions deepen, one expert said a growing segment of the public has come to accept public shaming as tolerable, if not reasonable.

“I think it’s already more acceptable,” said Kate Klonick, an expert on internet shaming and an assistant professor at the St John’s University School of Law. She warned such grass roots tactics can spin out of control. “I have faith that it won’t become normalised,” she added.

On Monday, Trump lashed out on Twitter at Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, who on Saturday called on fellow party members to publicly harass any Trump administration officials involved in the separation of parents and children at the border.

“If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome any more, anywhere,” Waters said.

Trump called Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person”, and said she had wished harm on his supporters. “Be careful what you wish for Max!” Trump tweeted.

Trump also slammed the restaurant that ejected Sanders, tweeting that it “should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders”.

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Experts on internet behaviour voiced concern about lower-level government employees finding their personal identities divulged online.

“Junior state officials are not policymakers and just do their job,” Michal Lavi, an online shaming expert and research fellow at the Cyber Security Research Centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said in an email.

Many of those who target their feelings of outrage against individuals online do not fully realise the impact that collective shaming can bring about, Klonick said.

“People are very quick to jump onto online shame mobs and they don’t recognise them as such,” she said, adding that a backlash might occur “when we have a high-profile example of it going really wrong”.

She said personal data is so widely scattered on the internet that those looking to identify someone “will find out about you in, like, five seconds”.

Before Trump was elected, he provided information online about a journalist with whom he had disagreed on immigration matters.

On June 25, 2015, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos sent Trump a letter asking for an interview. The letter included Ramos’s personal mobile number. Trump later posted the letter on his Instagram account, including the telephone number, and said: “Jorge Ramos and their other anchors are begging me for interviews.”