FBI, ICE Use Driver’s License Database For Facial Recognition Searches Without Consent – Report

CC0 / / Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) - Sputnik International
Government agencies in the US conduct hundreds of thousands of facial recognition searches using databases that contain information on people who have never been charged with a crime, without consent from either the civilian or the US Congress.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have found a gold mine of facial recognition searches in US Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) driver's license database, The Washington Post report says.

While law enforcement agencies have long employed criminals’ biometric databases, including mugshot and fingerprints, the DMV database contains millions of photos of people who have never been charged with a crime.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the FBI has conducted 390,000 facial recognition searches since 2011, including within the DMV database. In Utah alone, FBI and ICE agents logged over 1,000 facial-recognition searches between 2015-2017, sometimes performing dozens of searches a day, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The report underscores that this cooperation is conducted without consent of citizens, who are never asked permission to hand over their biometric data to government agencies. It also was not authorized by Congress, and lawmakers in the US have been ringing alarms.

"Law enforcement's access of state databases,” including that of the DMV, is "often done in the shadows with no consent," House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told The Post.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the committee's ranking Republican, also drew attention to the issue during a hearing into the deployment of facial recognition software last month.

"They've just given access to that to the FBI," he said. "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."

Twenty-one states allow federal agencies such as the FBI to scan driver’s license photos, GAO records show. While there are some rules to limit abuses of the system, such as requiring the search to be related to an ongoing investigation, these searches are performed by a simple email request to a DMV official with the target’s “probe photo” attached, a Georgetown University research unveiled, according to The Washington Post.

The database is also favored by ICE, as over a dozen US states allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses – either full or privileged – and several states are extending driving privileges to those without legal immigartion documents. Many of these states allow government agencies access the DMV databases, and several are in negotiations, according to GAO.

“The state has told [illegal 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,” said Clare Garvie of the Georgetown law school’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

According to the FBI, facial recognition software is 86-percent accurate and only if a search returns 50 possible matches. It is undisclosed how the system performs when fewer results are present. 

“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,” Salt Lake Tribune report says.

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