Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations) FBI are reportedly using hundreds of millions of state driver’s license photos without the knowledge or consent of the holders of those licenses and without the consent of Congress, according to The Washington Post. The Post indicated the FBI and ICE are “scanning through hundreds of millions of Americans’ photos“, which are being used for the development of facial recognition software. Their use, without knowledge or consent of those pictured, brings up any number of alarming privacy violation considerations. While it was known previously that ICE and the FBI were making use of driver’s license photos for this purpose, it is the massive scale of this effort that is the revelation in the new reports – now not thousands, but millions of people’s photos are being utilized in the effort.
Facial recognition software is itself controversial and some U.S. cities, such as San Francisco, concerned over violations of both privacy and civil rights, have outlawed the use of the software by law enforcement officials and public agencies. Now we find that ICE and the FBI have used hundreds of millions of state driver’s license photos without consent from those pictured and without permission from Congress. The sources for The Washington Post’s information are Georgetown Law School researchers who accessed internal memos and emails regarding the multi-year effort. According to The Hill:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have reportedly been using driver’s license photos to build a facial-recognition database without the license holders’ knowledge or consent. The Washington Post reports the two agencies have used millions of Americans’ photos largely from driver’s licenses to accumulate the facial recognition databases…The photos give the agencies a new layer of information on Americans and a new tool to potentially track both criminals and those who have never committed a crime, according to the Post, which adds that Congress has not authorized any such development of a facial recognition system. …While it was previously known that the FBI has used federal and local databases for more than 390,000 facial-recognition searches since 2011, the Post’s reporting showed the extent of the searches goes much farther. The findings are particularly salient as ICE agents across the country are cracking down on undocumented immigrants under the Trump administration.
Both sides of the aisle in Congress have expressed disapproval of this use of people’s state driver’s license photos, without their knowledge or consent and without the consent of Congress, for the purpose of building facial recognition software. Last month during hearings regarding facial recognition, when it was thought that hundreds of thousands rather than hundreds of millions of people’s photos were being accessed and scanned, House Oversight ranking Republican Jim Jordan (R-OH) said, according to The Hill, “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.” House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), responding now to The Washington Post’s revelation of the much larger scale of the effort said, according to The Hill, “Law enforcement’s access of state databases (particularly DMV databases) is often done in the shadows with no consent.”
It seems reasonable that a person should have a right to know how their picture is being used and to give consent for purposes beyond the original intent of the image, unless Congress passes a law or voters pass a resolution that such images may be used for additional purposes, such as building facial recognition software. That software could be used to violate both privacy and civil rights. In states that allow undocumented immigrants to have a driver’s license (currently 12 states along with D.C.), given the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies, this would also discourage such people from getting their license.