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The camera is seen on a facial recognition device as U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers use at Miami International Airport to screen travelers entering the United States on February 27, 2018 in Miami. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

'This Is a Scandal': Documents Show ICE and FBI Using Facial Recognition to Mine Millions of Driver's License Photos

"ICE is running facial recognition searches against millions of photos. You. Your family. Your friends. This is a major violation of privacy."

Jake Johnson

A trove of public records obtained by privacy experts at Georgetown Law revealed that ICE and the FBI have used facial recognition technology to mine state driver's license databases for information on millions of Americans without consent, a practice critics condemned as a "disturbing" breach of civil liberties.

"This is a scandal. States have never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver's license databases using facial recognition to look for folks."
—Harrison Rudolph, Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology

According to the Washington Post, which first reported on the documents late Sunday, "Thousands of facial-recognition requests, internal documents, and emails over the past five years... 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," the Post reported. "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."

Privacy advocates and immigrant rights groups reacted with alarm to the documents, the release of which comes as members of Congress are increasingly raising concerns about the threat facial recognition technology poses to civil liberties.

"Besides targeting undocumented folks, ICE is running facial recognition searches against millions of photos. You. Your family. Your friends," tweeted the non-profit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). "This is a major violation of privacy."

As the Post reported, the FBI and ICE have carried out facial recognition searches in three states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain full driver's licenses—Utah, Vermont, and Washington.

According to the Post:

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. 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.

"This is a scandal," Harrison Rudolph, an associate at Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, told the New York Times. "States have never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver's license databases using facial recognition to look for folks. These states have never told undocumented people that when they apply for a driver's license they are also turning over their face to ICE. That is a huge bait and switch."

Digital rights group Fight for the Future called for an immediate end to the use of "face recognition to hunt down immigrants."

Congress has not approved the FBI and ICE's mining of driver's license databases. Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, told the Post that it is "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," Laperruque said. "The FBI alone does 4,000 searches every month, and a lot of them go through state DMVs."

As Common Dreams reported in June, the House Oversight Committee has held two hearings on facial recognition amid growing concerns about potential abuse of the technology by law enforcement officials and giant corporations.

Following a hearing in May, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) connected the "global rise in authoritarianism and fascism" to worries about the privacy threats posed by facial recognition software, which is being used at major airports across the United States and the world.

"I don't want to see an authoritarian surveillance state," Ocasio-Cortez told reporters, "whether it's run by a government or whether it's run by five corporations."


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