FBI, ICE regularly access state facial recognition databases

FBI using driver's licenses for leads

Earlier this week, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology uncovered documents revealing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used state facial recognition databases to further their inquiries.

Furthermore, the institution discovered both agencies regularly searched through millions of Driver’s license records in three states with very little oversight. Additionally, the two law enforcement organizations conducted their searches without knowledge or consent of the affected individuals.

FBI’s Facial Recognition Searches

Georgetown Law found the FBI conducted 390,000 facial recognition searches of local databases such as state motor vehicle departments. The agency routinely asked state officials to examine their biometric directories to uncover leads on suspects. However, the Bureau wasn’t utilizing those vast data sets to hunt down terrorists, murderers, or drug runners.

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On the contrary, researchers found the organization used their access to track down petty thieves.

Furthermore, the institution discovered the FBI did not secure judicial approval to conduct its nearly 400,000 biometric searches. According to the Government Accountability Office, 21 states allow government law enforcement organizations to search their facial recognition databases. Typically, federal agents just emailed state officials photos of suspects when making a biometric records search request.

When questioned by the Washington Post, the FBI declined to comment upon Georgetown Law’s discoveries. However, the agency referred the publication to a statement made by FBI Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Greco on the subject of facial recognition. While testifying before Congress, Del Greco said the technology helps the Bureau “preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security.”

ICE’s Use of DMV Records

Researchers also found that ICE made biometric records requests of Utah, Vermont, and Washington motor vehicle departments between 2014 and 2017. The Georgetown Law group believes the agency worked with local officials to uncover and locate the legal immigrants.

In 12 states, including Utah, Vermont, and Washington, undocumented immigrants can legally obtain drivers licenses. As per documents and covered by Georgetown law researchers, Utah and Vermont agreed to ICE’s facial recognition search requests. Indeed, FBI and ICE investigators made more than 1,000 biometric data requests in Utah from 2015 to 2017.

The Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) put out a press release noting it processed four Department of Homeland Security/ICE biometric records checks. However, the DOL stressed that federal agents supplied subpoenas with all of their facial recognition requests. Moreover, the organization noted that it does not collect information regarding license holders’ immigration status.

Activist and Congressional Reactions

Predictably, civil liberty activists and proponents were not happy with the researcher’s disclosures.

Georgetown Law researcher Clare Garvie argued state officials were wrong to offer licenses to undocumented individuals and then turn that information over to ICE. “To me, it’s an insane breach of trust,” said the attorney.

Jake Laperruque, a lawyer with the Project on Government Oversight, called federal law enforcement agencies use of state biometric databases, “a surveillance-first, ask-permission-later system.” The institution’s disclosures have also roused the anger of Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) found the law enforcement organizations clandestine use of driver’s license records troubling. The House Oversight Committee Chairman said their actions were “done in the shadows with no consent.”

Similarly, Representative Jim Jordan (R-Oh.) expressed anger that the FBI and ICE accessed state records without obtaining drivers’ approval. He also noted that no state or federal legislators authorized the agencies to perform the searches they did.

It’s worth noting that while no federal laws govern the use of facial recognition technologies, two municipalities have outlawed its use by local authorities. In May, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors forbade city police and public agencies from using face-scanning tools. Earlier this month, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts instituted a similar ban on the technology.