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FBI, ICE Turn Drivers' Licenses Into Facial Recognition Gold

By John P. Mello Jr. TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jul 9, 2019 5:00 AM PT
fbi and ice's use of facial recognition tech to search drivers license databases raises privacy concerns

State motor vehicle departments have become a rich source of facial recognition data for and FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Researchers at Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology used public records requests to gather a cache of documents that show the agencies have turned state DMV databases into the foundation of a vast surveillance infrastructure, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

The records show that federal law enforcement has fostered a cozy relationship with state DMV officials, the Post found. For example, in Utah, FBI and ICE agents performed more than 1,000 facial-recognition searches between 2015 and 2017.

"The use of DMV photos for facial recognition is essentially treating everyone as a suspect," said Jeramie D. Scott, senior counsel and director of the domestic surveillance project of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

"This practice should be stopped for the time being, and the use of facial recognition needs to be weighed by Congress and the public because it's an extremely privacy-invasive technology that poses serious risks to civil liberties," he told TechNewsWorld.

The technology has attracted congressional attention in recent months. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held hearings in May and June on the impact of facial recognition technology on civil rights and liberties.

The House Committee on Homeland Security plans to hold a hearing on Wednesday to learn how the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Secret Service use the technology.

Taming Wild West

Rules need to be set on the general use of facial recognition, maintained Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for The Constitution Project at the on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

"Right now, it's an incredibly invasive technology that's being applied without limits," he told TechNewsWorld. "It's the Wild West."

A quarter of all police departments have the capacity to use facial recognition technology, and the FBI runs an average of 4,000 searches a month, Laperruque noted.

"Congress should set a floor for how and when this technology should be used, just as we have limits for wiretaps and other kinds of surveillance activities," he said.

States and counties should be allowed to adopt stricter standards if they think they are necessary, Laperruque added.

"Law enforcement is always going to be looking for a way to push to the edge of any acceptable behavior. We've seen cases where they've run police sketches through a facial recognition database. That's crazy," he said.

"We've also seen them run pictures of celebrities through a database after being told a suspect looked like a certain celebrity," Laperruque said.

Warrant Law Needed

ICE's bulk searches of DMV databases assume that everyone in the database is guilty in order to find a particular individual, explained law professor Joel R. Reidenberg, founding academic director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at the Fordham University School of Law in New York City.

"That's a significant civil liberties infringement for drivers across the country," he told TechNewsWorld. "ICE doesn't need warrants to do that type of search. I think we should impose, by statute, a warrant requirement."

Driver license information is protected by a federal statute, the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994, but law enforcement agencies are exempt from the restrictions in that law, he said.

"The law is 25 years old now. It was enacted before the days of digital photography, so this kind of data mining wasn't even on the horizon. The old law doesn't satisfy our current concerns," Reidenberg noted.

"Technology and access to data is moving faster than the protection of people's rights, which is leading to abuse and privacy violations," said Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior campaign organizer for Mijente, a Latinx and Chincanx advacacy group based in Phoenix, Arizona.

"This has an impact on everyone," she warned. "They may experiment on migrants and vulnerable communities first, but left unchecked, this will become the status quo."

Strict FBI Policies

If used properly, facial recognition is a tool that can greatly enhance law enforcement capabilities and protect public safety, but if used carelessly and improperly, it may have a negative impact on privacy and civil liberties, maintained Kimberly J. Del Greco of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division in testimony submitted to the House Oversight Committee.

FBI policy strictly governs the circumstances in which facial recognition tools may be utilized, she explained. Among those policies:

  • Facial recognition is used in conjunction with human review and investigation. Any leads produced by facial recognition are followed up by investigators to corroborate it before further action is taken.
  • Every face query -- including results received from FBI partners -- is reviewed and evaluated by trained examiners at the FBI to ensure the results are consistent with FBI standards.
  • Facial recognition capabilities are regularly tested, evaluated and improved. In addition to system testing, the FBI has partnered with NIST to ensure algorithm performance is evaluated.

"Our adversaries and the threats we face are relentless," Del Greco told committee members at the hearing.

"The FBI must continue to identify and use new capabilities such as automated facial recognition technology to meet the high expectations for the FBI to preserve our nation's freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security," she added.

Privacy's the Thing

Privacy, not a single technology like facial recognition, is the big issue facing society today, asserted George Brostoff, CEO of Sensible Vision, a face authentication company in Cape Coral, Florida.

"You don't need a driver's license database to find a photo of most people. All you need to do is a Google search. It will bring up photos from Facebook and everywhere else," he told TechNewsWorld.

"What we need to regulate is our privacy, whether it be facial recognition or fingerprints or phone data or our browser histories. That's where the laws need to be updated to meet what a majority of the people in the country feels is appropriate," Brostoff continued.

"I have reasonable confidence that technology can improve the job law enforcement can do," he said, "but just like any tool anyone uses, there has to be an understanding of the limits of that tool, and our laws have to reflect when and how it's used."


John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.


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