Records reviewed by the Washington Post show that the FBI and ICE have been scanning through Americans’ state driver’s license photos using facial recognition technology without consent. The agencies use photos from state Department of Motor Vehicles databases to run these searches, which are extremely frequent, records show.
The Post obtained this disturbing information through a records request from Georgetown Law researchers, which handed its findings over to the paper.
Huge swaths of Americans have their photos stored with the DMV, many more than those who have been fingerprinted by a police station. By accessing this information, the FBI and ICE have access to photos of most American adults, not just those who have been suspected of committing a crime.
Politicians in Congress have criticised the use of DMV databases for this purpose.
“Law enforcement’s access of state databases [like the DMV is] often done in the shadows with no consent,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings told the Post in a statement.
“They’ve just given access to that to the FBI,” Rep. Jim Jordan said at a hearing about the technology last month. “No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver’s license, got their driver’s licenses. They didn’t sign any waiver saying, ‘Oh, it’s okay to turn my information, my photo, over to the FBI.’ No elected officials voted for that to happen.”
From the Post:
The records show the technology already is tightly woven into the fabric of modern law enforcement. They detailed the regular use of facial recognition to track down suspects in low-level crimes, including cashing a stolen check and petty theft. And searches are often executed with nothing more formal than an email from a federal agent to a local contact, the records show. [...]
The records also underscore the conflicts between the laws of some states and the federal push to find and deport undocumented immigrants. Though Utah, Vermont and Washington allow undocumented immigrants to obtain full driver’s licenses or more-limited permits known as driving privilege cards, ICE agents have run facial-recognition searches on those DMV databases.
According to a report by the Government Accountability Office last month, the FBI has requested 390,000 facial recognition searches of databases that include DMV photos since 2011.
“It’s really a surveillance-first, ask-permission-later system,” Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, told the Post. “People think this is something coming way off in the future, but these [facial-recognition] searches are happening very frequently today. The FBI alone does 4,000 searches every month, and a lot of them go through state DMVs.”
This system is a major concern for undocumented immigrants, who have driving rights in many states. New York recently passed a law allowing undocumented people to hold driver’s licences, and other states have pending legislation on the issue. But these immigrants have not been aware that by getting a license, they are allowing themselves to be part of a database that could be searched by ICE.
“The state has told [undocumented immigrants], has encouraged them, to submit that information. To me, it’s an insane breach of trust to then turn around and allow ICE access to that,” Clare Garvie, a senior associate at the Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, told the Post.
ICE declined to answer questions from the Post. In a statement, an ICE spokesperson said “investigative techniques are generally considered law-enforcement sensitive.”
Last month, the FBI testified in Congress about the surveillance techniques. Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Greco said at that hearing that the use of facial recognition technology was crucial “to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security.”
It seems to us that this technology isn’t doing much to “preserve our freedoms,” but what do we know!
Read the rest of the story over at the Post.