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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.

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."

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