FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have turned state driver’s license databases into a facial-recognition “gold mine,” scanning through hundreds of millions of photos without people’s knowledge or consent, the Washington Post reports. Thousands of facial-recognition requests, internal documents and emails over five years, obtained through public-records requests by Georgetown Law researchers and provided to the newspaper, show that federal investigators have turned state Department of Motor Vehicles databases into an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure. Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA and other “biometric data” from criminal suspects. DMV records contain photos of many state residents, most of whom have never been charged with a crime.
Neither Congress nor state legislatures have authorized such a system. Some lawmakers call the technology a dangerous, pervasive and error-prone surveillance tool. “Law enforcement’s access of state databases,” particularly DMV databases, is “often done in the shadows with no consent,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD). Rep. Jim Jordan (OH), the panel’s ranking Republican, was incensed during a hearing last month at the use of driver’s license photos in federal facial-recognition searches without the approval of state legislators or license holders. “They’ve just given access to that to the FBI,” he said. “No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver’s license, got their driver’s licenses.” Federal investigators have turned facial recognition into a routine investigative tool. Since 2011, the FBI has logged 390,000 facial-recognition searches of federal and local databases, says the Government Accountability Office. San Francisco and Somerville, Ma., have banned their police and public agencies from using facial-recognition software, citing concerns about governmental overreach. The records detailed the regular use of facial recognition to track down suspects in low-level crimes, including cashing a stolen check and petty theft.