ICE Has Been Mining DMV Databases Using Facial Recognition for Years

"It’s an insane breach of trust," said one of the researchers who uncovered the cooperation.
July 8, 2019, 10:43am
DMV ICE FBI facial recognition

Tens of millions of U.S. citizens have had their faces scanned by the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) without their knowledge or consent, according to new documents collected by researchers at Georgetown Law.

Shared with the Washington Post and the New York Times, the documents reveal that between 2014 and 2017, the agencies mined the databases of the Department of Motor Vehicles in states across the country, sometimes with as little as an emailed request to a DMV employee.


The records show how facial recognition technology has already become an integral part of daily law enforcement activity in the U.S. is being used to track down suspects in low-level crimes like cashing a stolen check and petty theft.

The use of this unofficial surveillance infrastructure has never been authorized by Congress or any state legislature, and advocates say running facial recognition searches against databases of millions of law-abiding citizens is a serious breach of privacy.

“This is a scandal,” Harrison Rudolph, a researcher at Georgetown Law, told the New York Times. “States have never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver’s license databases using facial recognition to look for folks."

How is ICE getting this data?

FBI and ICE agents have forged close working relationships with DMV employees, allowing them to request database searches with nothing more than an email to a DMV official (though some have been conducted on the strength of federal subpoenas or court orders).

The DMV official would then search the driver’s license database using the target’s “probe photo,” provided by ICE or the FBI, and provide details of any possible matches.

In addition to scanning for criminal suspects, agents have requested database searches for possible witnesses, victims, bodies, innocent bystanders, and other people not charged with crimes.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office published last month, 21 states allow the FBI to scan DMV databases. Since 2011, the FBI has logged more than 390,000 facial-recognition searches of federal and local databases, including DMV databases, according to the same report.

What is ICE doing with the data?

The documents gathered by the Georgetown Law researchers mark the first known instance of ICE using facial recognition technology to scan state driver’s license databases, including photos of legal residents and citizens.

The records show that in Utah, Vermont and Washington, all of which offer driving licenses or permits to undocumented immigrants, ICE officials have requested to comb through state repositories of license photos. Officials in Utah and Vermont complied, while the state of Washington required a court order.


“The state has told [undocumented immigrants], has encouraged them, to submit that information. To me, it’s an insane breach of trust to then turn around and allow ICE access to that,” said Clare Garvie, a senior associate with Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, who led the research.

"These states have never told undocumented people that when they apply for a driver’s license, they are also turning over their face to ICE," Rudolph said. "That is a huge bait and switch.

The documents don’t reveal if the ICE search requests have directly resulted in the deportation of undocumented immigrants, and a spokesperson for the agency told the New York Times said he could not comment on “investigative techniques, tactics or tools” because of “law-enforcement sensitivities.”

But, he added, “during the course of an investigation, ICE has the ability to collaborate with external local, federal and international agencies to obtain information that may assist in case completion and subsequent prosecution. This is an established procedure that is consistent with other law enforcement agencies.”

What’s the problem with facial recognition?

Facial recognition technology is increasingly in use around the world for everything from unlocking your phone to checking the status of your flight. But critics have railed against the use of facial recognition by law enforcement, claiming the technology is biased, unreliable, and an invasion of privacy.

In some U.S. cities, including San Francisco, lawmakers have already banned its use by law enforcement and public agencies, citing the need to preserve civil rights and residents' privacy.

In April, 55 prominent AI researchers called on Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies because it is biased against women and racial minorities.

At a hearing in May, Republican and Democratic members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee slammed the use of facial recognition technology and voiced support for passing federal laws to limit its use.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, compared the use of facial recognition to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” “Seems to me it’s time for a time-out,” Jordan said. “Doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, this should concern us all.”

Cover: In this Aug. 7, 2018, file photo, people line up at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in the Van Nuys section of LA prior to opening. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)