Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI are utilizing state driver’s license databases to scan through “millions of Americans’ photos without their knowledge or consent,” The Washington Post reported Sunday.
A cache of internal documents and emails from ICE and the FBI obtained by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology and provided to the paper show “federal investigators have turned state Department of Motor Vehicles databases into the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure,” the Post said.
While law enforcement use of DNA and fingerprints taken from criminal suspects in other criminal investigations is standard practice, DMV records hold photos of large numbers of state residents who haven’t been charged with a crime, the paper reported.
ICE’s reported use of driver’s license databases for facial recognition comes amid increased calls from the Trump administration to use immigration raids to identify and prosecute undocumented immigrants. President Donald Trump said last month his administration would launch a series of ICE raids sometime after the Fourth of July, and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Sunday defended the practice, telling ABC “interior enforcement” is part of “balanced enforcement process.”
ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke told CNN in a statement Monday the department doesn’t comment on investigation techniques, but it 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,” Bourke said.
The FBI referred CNN to congressional testimony last month from Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Greco. In a hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Del Greco told lawmakers that facial-recognition technology and practices were important “to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security.”
According to The New York Times, which also obtained the documents from the Georgetown researchers, this is the “first known instance of ICE using facial recognition technology to scan state driver’s license databases, including photos of legal residents and citizens.”
Harrison Rudolph, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology, told the Times that states “never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver’s license databases using facial recognition to look for folks.”
“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,” he told the Times. “That is a huge bait and switch.”
The practice has prompted privacy concerns from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings told the Post in a statement that law enforcement’s access to state databases is “often done in the shadows with no consent.”
According to a Government Accountability Office report, the FBI has made more than 390,000 facial recognition searches since 2011. The Post reported that those searches are “often executed with nothing more formal than an email from a federal agent to a local contact.”
This story has been updated with the FBI’s referral to last month’s congressional testimony.