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FBI, ICE secretly using huge photo ID databases for unauthorized facial recognition

A driver displays sample passport cards and enhanced drivers licenses. (U.S. Embassy Canada/Released)
July 09, 2019

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been using the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) databases to secretly access drivers license photos for their facial recognition software.

Georgetown University researchers uncovered the information through public records requests and provided them to The Washington Post, who reported Sunday that DMV databases have been a go-to hub for FBI and ICE agents accessing an unidentified number of photos among hundreds of millions — all without consent or authorization.

Unlike criminal databases that law enforcement agencies have used for quite some time, DMV records provide photos and information on most residents in each state — many of who have never broken the law.

Even worse, no federal or state officials have authorized this.

House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings said, “Law enforcement’s access of state databases is often done in the shadows with no consent.”

Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight said, “It’s really a surveillance-first, ask-permission-later system. 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.”

Some cities, including San Francisco, Calif. and Somerville, Mass., are no longer allowing law enforcement or other public agencies to use facial-recognition software. In the states that do grant permission to federal agencies, generally, the search must be part of a criminal investigation.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed last month that nearly 400,000 facial-recognition searches have been conducted by the FBI alone since 2011. According to the FBI, the facial recognition systems functions at 86 percent accuracy.

The FBI has access to federal, state, and local databases containing some 641 million photos, the GAO confirmed last month. Yet little is known on the number of searches performed, who the searches target, or the frequency of false positives.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Oversight Committee’s top Republican said, “They’ve just given access to that to the FBI. 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 OK to turn my information, my photo, over to the FBI.’ No elected officials voted for that to happen.”

ICE is interested in the databases of states that allow undocumented immigrants permission to drive to obtain information.

Clare Garvie, a senior associate with the Georgetown law school’s Center on Privacy and Technology said, “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.”

Last month, Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Greco said, facial-recognition technology was critical “to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security,” the Washington Post reported.

Those who oppose federal access to the facial recognition fear that system flaws will lead to improper identification and wrongful arrests, since several factors can skew the results.

Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior organizer for the advocacy group Mijente said, “The public doesn’t have a way of controlling what information the government has on them. And now there’s this rapidly advancing technology, with very few guidelines and protections for people, putting all of this information at their fingertips in a very scary way.”