U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is using facial recognition software to trawl through millions of driver’s license photos provided by 21 states to search and find suspects.
News broke over the weekend that the FBI and immigration officials access images — often without obtaining a search warrant or court order — in order to identify criminal suspects but also witnesses, victims and innocent bystanders. In some cases agents would simply email the state department of motor vehicles for assistance.
But Congress nor state lawmakers ever authorized the access or the searches. A bipartisan group of congresspeople have criticized the use of facial recognition as dangerous to citizens’ right to privacy.
Several states, like New York, and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, with other states — like Florida and Texas — working to introduce similar laws.
Documents obtained by a public records request and seen by both The Washington Post and The New York Times reveal the scope of the privacy infraction. Utah alone saw close to 2,000 facial recognition searches from law enforcement agencies in the two years between 2015 and 2017.
Facial recognition remains controversial, not least because it’s been accused of racial bias and plagued with inaccuracies. The FBI’s facial recognition database contains more than 640 million images, but a government watchdog reported that the agency has “not taken sufficient action to help ensure accuracy” of its system.
Earlier this year documents revealed 9,000 ICE agents have access to a massive license plate database, containing six billion vehicle detections. The database also includes a “hot list” of more than 1,100 license plates of subjects of interest, which triggers an alert every time the plates are picked up by a license plate reader.
The U.S. has thousands of automatic license plate readers (ALPR) across the country.