FBI, ICE Using Facial Recognition To Bulk-Scan DMV Photos In "Unprecedented Surveillance Infrastructure"

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been using state driver's license databases to run photos of millions of Americans through facial-recognition systems without their knowledge or consent, according to the Washington Post

Thousands of facial-recognition requests, internal documents and emails over the past five years, obtained through public-records requests by Georgetown Law researchers and provided to The Washington Post, reveal that federal investigators have turned state departments of motor vehicles databases into the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.

Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA and other “biometric data” taken from criminal suspects. But the DMV records contain the photos of a vast majority of a state’s residents, most of whom have never been charged with a crime. -Washington Post

Disturbingly, neither Congress nor state legislatures have authorized this type of systemand none of us agreed to it when we obtained licenses

"They’ve just given access to that to the FBI," said Rep. Jim Jordan, ranking GOP member of the House Oversight Committee. "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." 

"Law enforcement’s access of state databases," and in particular those of the DMV, is "often done in the shadows with no consent," added House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD). 

And as has been reported for some time, law enforcement has been relying on facial recognition technology as a routine investigative tool for years - and it's going to get worse

Since 2011, the FBI has logged more than 390,000 facial-recognition searches of federal and local databases, including state DMV databases, the Government Accountability Office said last month, and the records show that federal investigators have forged daily working relationships with DMV officials. In Utah, FBI and ICE agents logged more than 1,000 facial-recognition searches between 2015 and 2017, the records show. Names and other details are hidden, though dozens of the searches are marked as having returned a “possible match.” -Washington Post

Also disturbing is the fact that law enforcement often uses facial recognition to investigate low-level crime, with searches "often executed with nothing more formal than an email from a federal agent to a local contact," according to the Post

"It’s really a surveillance-first, ask-permission-later system," says Project on Government Oversight watchdog lawyer Jake Laperruque. "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."

Targeting illegals with licenses? 

The Post also brings up the fact that undocumented residents who obtain driver's licenses in states which allow this may be subject to immigration enforcement due to the facial recognition technology. 

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.

More than a dozen states, including New York, as well as the District of Columbia, allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally with full licenses or driving privilege cards, as long as they submit proof of in-state residency and pass the states’ driving-proficiency tests.

Lawmakers in Florida, Texas and other states have introduced bills this year that would extend driving privileges to undocumented immigrants. Some of those states already allow the FBI to scan driver’s license photos, while others, such as Florida and New York, are negotiating with the FBI over access, according to the GAO. -Washington Post

"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," according to Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology senior associate Clare Garvie, who led the research. 

The FBI’s facial-recognition search has access to local, state and federal databases containing more than 641 million face photos, a GAO director said last month. But the agency provides little information about when the searches are used, who is targeted and how often searches return false matches. -Washington Post

When asked about the surveillance, the FBI told the Post to refer to last month's congressional testimony from Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Grecco, who said that facial recognition was necessary "to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security." 

Racist technology?

Civil rights advocates have decried the use of facial recognition technology due to the fact that it is far less accurate when trying to identify people of color. According to the report, "The software’s precision is highly dependent on a number of factors, including the lighting of a subject’s face and the quality of the image, and research has shown that the technology performs less accurately on people with darker skin." 

Whatever the objection, we're now at the point where our ability to drive a car or enjoy the out-of-doors is subject to constant electronic surveillance of varying accuracy.