ICE, FBI use state driver's license photos for facial-recognition scans

FBI and ICE agents are using facial-recognition technology to sift through states' DMV databases without the driver’s knowledge or consent, according to internal documents.

The information was obtained through public records requests by researchers at Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology. The documents, which spanned the last five years, were first provided to The Washington Post.

Documents showed that ICE requested use of DMV databases to use the technology and while many states ignored the requests, Vermont, Utah and Washington complied. All three states offer undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a driver’s license.

“During the course of an investigation, ICE has the ability to collaborate with external local, federal and international agencies to obtain information that may assist in case completion and prosecution efforts. This is an established procedure that is consistent with other law-enforcement agencies,” said ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke in a written statement to The Associated Press.

At least two cases in Utah and one in Washington appeared to involve ICE, but the majority of requests in Utah were from the agency’s Homeland Security Investigation’s Division.

Documents from Utah showed more than 1,800 cases over the course of two years with requests from multiple agencies, including other states, the FBI and the Department of State.

Police have had access to fingerprints, DNA and other data taken from suspects, but DMV records contain photos for a much larger population of states’ residents and many of them have not been convicted of a crime, The Washington Post reported.

Since facial-recognition has become more heavily used by federal agencies, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been critical of how dangerous the technology can be and questioned its accuracy. San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, have banned the use of facial scanning by their local agencies.

In a Government Accountability Office report, the FBI conducted tests on the accuracy of facial recognition and found that 86 percent of the time a match was found in a 50-person list. The report indicated that “tests were limited because they did not include all possible candidate list sizes and did not specify how often incorrect matches were returned.”

“The FBI had not accessed accuracy when users requested a list of two to 29 matches,” the report stated. “According to the FBI, a smaller list would likely lower the accuracy of the searches as the smaller list may not contain the likely match that would be present in the larger list.”

Amazon, which provides facial recognition technology to law enforcement, has come under fierce criticism over the software. Earlier this year, a study by the MIT Media Lab raised concerns that the technology does not perform well when trying to identify a person’s gender if they’re a woman or person of color.

The software, called Rekognition, was able to properly identify white men, but it mistakenly identified women as men 19 percent of the time and identified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time, according to The Verge. Amazon denied that the study provided any evidence to the accuracy of Rekognition.

But in 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union tested the software on all 535 members of Congress against 25,000 mugshots. Rekognition ended up with 28 incorrect matches, according to The Verge.

Despite the criticism, the use of facial-recognition by state, federal and local law enforcement agencies has grown over the last 10 years.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., let the FBI access their driver’s license and identification photo databases, according to the Government Accountability Office report published in June. The report stated the FBI has access to 640 million photos, including U.S. visa applicants, with more than 390,000 photos searched for matches since 2011.

In Utah, ICE asked to search the database containing license images 49 times between October 2015 and November 2017, according to Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Marissa Cote. No search warrant or subpoena was required, but all searches involved potential criminal suspects, she said.

In Washington, the Department of Licensing said it has not received a facial-recognition request since 2017 and that as of 2018, all requests must be court ordered.

A spokeswoman for Vermont’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, said Vermont officials stopped sharing facial-recognition information with ICE in May 2017.

Since the Washington Post first reported on ICE using the method on DMV databases, civil rights activists have said the technology could be abused by the Trump administration as it continues to crack down on immigration.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.