FBI, ICE Are Running Facial Recognition Searches Against State Drivers' Databases

from the access-all-areas dept

Biometric databases have a hunger for data. And they’re getting fed. Government agencies are shoving every face they can find into facial recognition databases. Expanding the dataset means adding people who’ve never committed a crime and, importantly, who’ve never given their explicit consent to have their personal details handed over to federal agencies.

Thanks to unprecedented levels of cooperation across all levels of government, FBI and ICE are matching faces using data collected from millions of non-criminals. The agencies are apparently hoping this will all work out OK, rather than create a new national nightmare of shattered privacy and violated rights. Or maybe they just don’t care.

Thousands of facial-recognition requests, internal documents, and e-mails over the past five years, obtained through public-records requests by Georgetown University researchers and provided to The Washington Post, reveal that federal investigators have turned state Department of Motor Vehicles databases into the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.

Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA, and other ‘‘biometric data’’ taken from criminal suspects. But the DMV records contain the photos of the majority of a state’s residents, most of whom have never been charged with a crime.

This is nothing new for the FBI, which has long had access to facial recognition databases loaded with low-res photos and millions of innocent peoples’ faces. ICE’s access to these databases may be a bit newer, but it has been increasing its surveillance power for years.

The thing about the access to state DMV databases is it may not be strictly legal. There’s been no Congressional authorization of federal agency access to state databases. This hasn’t been approved via statute at state level either. Members of the House Oversight Committee are now asking questions about FBI and ICE’s access, but this concern arrives several years after the fact.

ICE’s access to these databases promises to work out well for the agency. A number of states have extended driving privileges to undocumented immigrants and more state legislatures are looking to add that option. This feeds even more faces and personal info into databases ICE can access, allowing the agency to streamline its immigration enforcement operations.

So far, neither of the agencies are willing to comment on the issue. ICE refused to comment on its DMV database access, claiming any further details would hurt its enforcement efforts. The FBI was forced to comment during recent oversight hearings, but the statement it delivered is nothing more than jingoistic jargon.

Asked to comment, the FBI cited congressional testimony last month of Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Greco, who said facial-recognition technology was critical ‘‘to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security.’’

As it stands now, the FBI has access to more than 641 million face photos, according to the Government Accountability Office. The GAO also noted the FBI’s facial recognition software was inaccurate, its databases were loaded with non-criminals, and the DOJ had expressed zero interest in scaling back access or improving the quality of its data haystacks. How this is edging the nation closer to the misty-eyed ideal the Deputy Assistant Director trotted out before Congress last month is anyone’s guess.

All the talk about preserving liberties and protecting liberties doesn’t mean much when most of the nation’s drivers are unwilling participants in the federal government’s facial recognition experiments.

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Comments on “FBI, ICE Are Running Facial Recognition Searches Against State Drivers' Databases”

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42 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 So I only have one question...

Maybe you are not following along.

The states are the ones who dictate where state residents must obtain the new fangled ID that is being forced upon the states by the fed. In many states, this system has not been designed nor maintained to handle the expected load of people needing new ids. Now, if the government were to hold off the requirement until just before elections there would be a huge problem for those who have difficulty getting to their jobs much less to a dmv across town during normal working hours. Whereas the more affluent among us would have much less difficulty in this regard … for obvious reasons. This could result in a rather large disparity between those who receive their new id in time to vote and those who do not. To make matters even worse, some states are eliminating dmv offices in poor neighborhoods.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 So I only have one question...

Maybe you are not following along.

The states didn’t design or impose the REAL ID Act. Congress did. So if the purpose of the REAL ID act was to "prevent certain groups from voting, despite being legally eligible to vote otherwise", as originally claimed, it would have to been a congressional purpose, not a state DMV purpose.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:7 So I only have one question.

I was providing why someone might think that, not the lawyer speak you were looking for.

And again some speculation .. the true intent of most political activity is hidden, as in you never get to see the lawyer speak flow diagrams of how their bills will get them what they want. Just follow the money usually gets you there.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 So I only have one question...

Now, if the government were to hold off the requirement until just before elections there would be a huge problem for those who have difficulty getting to their jobs much less to a dmv across town during normal working hours.

The federal government has given the states more than a decade and a half to implement this requirement. The fact that some states (like California) have dithered around and not bothered to do anything for 15 years and are now facing a looming deadline is hardly the fault of the federal government, nor is it evidence that the purpose of the REAL ID Act is to "prevent certain groups from voting, despite being legally eligible to vote otherwise".

And even so, the REAL ID requirement only says that you have to have one of these new and improved DLs to access federal services, like boarding a plane or entering a federal building. The old DLs are still perfectly valid for state and local uses, like driving a car or voting, so god only knows how one arrives at voter suppression being the "purpose" of the REAL ID Act.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 The public doesn't want REAL ID

This is one of those (old-school) libertarian-esque notions that is pervasive throughout the nation, that we don’t want to have to have papers as per the USSR. And yet REAL ID is exactly that, an ID card with a symbol on it that assures that this citizen’s papers are in order.

I call it my I am not a terrorist card, and it was a son of a bitch to get all my papers in order to get one.

But that REAL ID is now mandated in order to fly (I think) as of January 20.

We didn’t want it. And it was added into the government agenda when everyone was terrified due to a recent major attack by a foreign power. Years later, it’s only our corporate masters and the police state that still want it. But they control the legislature, not the public.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 The public doesn't want REAL ID

But that REAL ID is now mandated in order to fly (I think) as of January 20.

It’s not, really. You just to have to have one if you want to use your driver license to get through the TSA checkpoint. You can still use a passport if you like. And you can get on a plane without any idea at all. They have to make allowances for people whose ID is lost or stolen. It’d be a real bitch to be on vacation in Hawaii, have your wallet stolen, then be told, "Sorry, you can’t fly home since you don’t have ID." (And since renting a car in Hawaii is a non-starter, you’d essentially be stranded.) So yeah, you can get on a plane with no ID, it just takes a lot longer to get through the checkpoint, so leave yourself a generous time buffer if you try it.

This is one of those (old-school) libertarian-esque notions that is pervasive throughout the nation, that we don’t want to have to have papers as per the USSR.

I’m pretty far out on the libertarian scale and I don’t particularly like the whole ‘papers please’ overtones of the REAL ID, but I’m also very practical. We’re all already carrying around the equivalent of a national ID already. Just because mine says California on the top of it and yours says Arkansas, the practical reality is, we’re already doing it in every way that matters, so I can’t get too worked up if the federal government wants to put its own little hologram or whatever on there too.

Personally, I’m not going to bother with it. Because of the incompetence of the California government, the lines at the DMVs here are out the door and around the block as 30 million people are all trying to get the new ID in the few months remaining. I currently don’t need a DL to board a plane; I can use my LEO credentials. After I retire in about a year, I can use my passport, which doesn’t expire until 2027, so I’m all good. Like I said, my DL will still be valid to drive with, even without the upgrade, so I see no reason to subject myself to DMV hell to change it.

R,ogs/ says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Who were they, that did 911

Uriel, maybe I know a bit more.

I wrote the worlds first ever news story about the worlds first ever media framed Somali “terrorist/informant” Mohammed Warsame long before Trevor Aaronson and the rest of the a ADL/Israelified/MIC media covered it, and then, got mystery stalkers, Palantir based technoligy, black bag jobs, and internet foreplay crammed up my ass for a couple decades, because i dont do the politics of deference.

So, theres that….the rest is just Wikispooks on Wikipedia doing Wiki factitious disorder shit.

TripMN says:

Re: Re:

This was the part that struck me about the NPR coverage. They kept talking about how poorly the facial recognition software was at successfully telling males from females based on pictures.

Umm… guys, I know its somewhat related, but what does that statistic have to do with the more complex issue of matching the person in a photo (who is at a different angle with different lighting and may be blurry) to a giant database that is definitely full of people that may look similar???

Gary says:

Re: neighbors are neighbors

I think you are trying to make a subtle dig to "Send them home" but I don’t think you fully realize what it would mean sending all those Canadians back north.

Canadians – our neighbors to the North – are by far the largest group of lawless invaders. So remember that as you are grabbing more pussies in the name of el Cheetos.

Anonymous Coward says:

Facial recognition didn't exist 10 years ago...

… but now it’s "critical".

20 years ago, most people’s private records, diaries, notes, and correspondence were sitting in desks in their own houses, and couldn’t be gotten from third parties with subpoenas or even warrants. And detailed histories of their movements didn’t even exist at all. But now all that stuff is "critical".

120 years ago, wiretaps were impossible. But now they’re "critical".

btr1701 (profile) says:

Thanks to unprecedented levels of cooperation across all levels of government…

Isn’t this what we want? I mean, after 9-11, when it came to light that FBI wasn’t talking to State or CIA, State wasn’t talking to CIA or FBI, CIA wasn’t talking to anyone, and none of them even thought about talking to state and local police, there was this great handwringing and pearl clutching and accusations of incompetency at all levels of government that we allowed this to happen.

Now, fast forward a decade or two, and the Cushings of the world have a minor stroke every time they find out that two or more branches of the government actually are communicating with one another.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Government agencies communicating.

Well this has proven a problem before. Remember the George W. Bush administration decided it was worth transgressing on the rights of some innocent American citizens in order to stop terrorism.

Then it became an awful lot of innocent American citizens.

Then it was not just to stop Terrorism but Drug trade and Whistleblowing on government agencies, and to put away anyone else that some official deemed inconvenient.

Then it was to route out any large amounts of cash or seizable assets via asset-forfeiture so as to profit precincts and agencies directly. Especially if the owners of such property were non-white or otherwise Unamerican enough.

And also it was to let agencies help each other parallel-construct cases that involved ill-gotten evidence, such as using the NSA internet data block, or IMSI Catcher tech.

So now, when government agencies talk to each other, it means some poor sod is losing his property and his fourth-amendment rights.

The cure has become worse than the disease. But then, it always was.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA, and other ‘‘biometric data’’ taken from criminal suspects.

Those fingerprint databases contain a lot more than just criminal suspects. They contain the prints of everyone who has ever worked or applied to be a cop, doctor, nurse, lawyer, and many other professions whose state licensing requires people undergo background checks and by fingerprinted in order to work in that profession.

So saying police access to fingerprint databases was somehow only limited to people who had been accused of crimes is either ignorant or disingenuous.

btr1701 (profile) says:

There’s been no Congressional authorization of federal agency access to state databases.

I wasn’t aware that a federal law enforcement agency has to have specific congressional authorization for every single distinct investigative resource before it’s legal to use it.

Congress hasn’t specifically authorized the FBI to look at Facebook, either, but it’s silly to say that the FBI can’t access Facebook because Congress hasn’t explicitly said they can.

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