FBI And ICE Using Driver’s License Photos Without Consent For Facial Recognition Searches

Federal agents remove items from the home of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh in the 3400 block of Ellamont Rd as they execute a search warrant, on April 25, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland.
John Strohsacker / Getty Images

FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have reportedly been using hundreds of millions of state driver’s license photos for facial recognition searches without the knowledge or consent of the Americans holding the licenses. According to a report from The Washington Post using thousands of facial recognition requests and internal communications, the federal agencies have mined information from state Department of Motor Vehicles to create a massive surveillance infrastructure.

Though federal agencies have tapped into police fingerprint and DNA information from criminal suspects for years, this new tool allows agencies to track people who may not have ever committed a crime. To accomplish this, the agencies have developed working relationships with state DMV offices. Since 2011, the FBI has done over 390,000 searches using DMV databases. The database includes 5 million IDs of people from Utah alone. These searches are apparently done with nothing more extensive than an email request.

Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, criticized the technology.

“It’s really a surveillance-first, ask-permission-later system,” he said.

“People think this is something coming way off in the future, but these searches are happening very frequently today. The FBI alone does 4,000 searches every month, and a lot of them go through state DMVs.”

The system hasn’t been authorized by Congress, nor has it been sanctioned by the states. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns over the technology.

“They’ve just given access to that to the FBI,” said Ohio Representative Jim Jordan.

“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.”

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The system also allows ICE agents access to find and deport immigrants since states like New York, Utah, Vermont, and Washington allow immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses or official ID cards. States like Florida and Texas have introduced legislation to do the same.

Critics say that this is a breach of trust to encourage immigrants to turn over their information to state agencies who then turn around and send it to ICE officials.

Other critics worry that the inaccuracy of facial recognition could result in false arrests and breaches the privacy of bystanders or innocent citizens who have not committed a crime.

An FBI spokesperson defended the practice, saying that it was essential in order to secure the nation.