Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are widely using facial recognition tools on state driver’s license databases around the country, according to newly released documents.
In documents from multiple states released today, Georgetown Law reveals how officials regularly turn to local DMVs for facial recognition searches. The database searches scan millions of license photos, regardless of whether any individual in the database has been accused of a crime. In Utah, between 2015 and 2017, federal and local officials queried a license database frequently, often several times a day, according to a log of searches. ICE and the FBI regularly searched the data.
The Washington Post first reported on the documents. As the Post notes, the searches were used even for low-level crimes like petty theft and often required only an email from federal officials to local agencies.
Even states that offer licenses to undocumented immigrants complied with requests for searches. The documents obtained by Georgetown show that Utah, Vermont, and Washington worked with law enforcement. Vermont officials told the Post the state no longer uses the software, and in Washington, a court order is required for access.
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment, citing “law-enforcement sensitivities.”
As the documents show, law enforcement has been using facial recognition for years to track suspects, but experts and advocates have questioned the use of the tools. Research has shown that some systems may be biased against people of color, and companies like Amazon have come under fire for providing the tools to law enforcement.
Meanwhile, some cities have taken the matter into their own hands. In May, San Francisco became the first in the nation to ban government use of facial recognition, and the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, has since followed.