FBI and ICE scan millions of DMV photos to find suspects, raising concerns

Researchers discover government agencies use facial recognition software on photos from local DMVs.

FBI and ICE scan millions of DMV photos to find suspects, raising concerns

DMV office in Palmdale, CA.

Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images. 2004.
  • FBI and ICE routinely scan through millions of photos in state DMV databases.
  • The agencies use facial recognition software to find matches for suspects.
  • Congressmen on both sides of the isle are worried about privacy implications of such unregulated practices.


You can fully indulge your fears of ubiquitous government surveillance with the news that it's already here. Georgetown Law researchers and reporters from the Washington Post found out that FBI and ICE investigators have been scanning hundreds of millions of photos from state DMVs to use in facial recognition software.

This treasure trove of data is utilized frequently to look for suspects in "low-level" crimes. The FBI, apparently, makes about 4,000 facial recognition searches every month. In total, the agency has access to 641 million face photos across various databases.

Such a practice currently involves 21 states, including the populous Pennsylvania and Texas. While there are rules set up for such search requests to be linked to active investigations, they are not always strict or followed. This leads to a lack of accountability or clarity in who is being looked at, whether there are false positives, and if privacy concerns are being addressed.

A facial recognition system for law enforcement showcased during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference in Washington, DC, November 1, 2017.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.

Clare Garvie, a senior associate with the Georgetown Law center who headed the research, called it an"insane breach of trust" that in some states immigrants without documents are being urged to submit their info to get driver licenses - info that is then passed on to ICE.

FBI's Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Greco spoke in favor of the practice, however, saying it worked to "to preserve our nation's freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security." The difference, of course, is that the millions who are getting scanned have not been charged with any crimes. The government is essentially fishing through information on American citizens in a way that has not been definitively authorized by Congress or state legislatures.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents leading arrested immigration violators at Fresh Mark, Salem, June 19, 2018.

Image courtesy of ICE ICE / U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement / Getty Images.

Both Republicans and Democrats have spoken out against the practice.

"They've just given access to that to the FBI," said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee. "No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver's license, got their driver's licenses. They didn't sign any waiver saying, 'Oh, it's okay to turn my information, my photo, over to the FBI.' No elected officials voted for that to happen."

In a statement to the Washington Post, the House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) agreed that there's trouble there, pointing out that "Law enforcement's access of state databases," especially DMV information, is "often done in the shadows with no consent."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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