A recent report by the Washington Post revealing that the federal government has turned state drivers’ license photos into a giant facial recognition database, putting virtually every driver in America in a perpetual electronic police lineup, generated widespread outrage. But this story isn’t new. The federal government has been developing a massive biometric database in cooperation with state and local governments for years.
According to information obtained by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology and reported by the Post, the FBI and ICE have turned state DMV databases into the “bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.” The feds have done this with no authorization and virtually no oversight. As Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) put it during a House Oversight Committee meeting, “They’ve just given access to that to the FBI. 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.”
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle joined Jordan in condemning the practice. But that fact is we knew about this years ago. None of these congressional “leaders” have lifted a finger to stop it. And the feigned outrage of Jordan and others on Capitol Hill notwithstanding, they likely never will.
The use of DMV databases in facial recognition surveillance makes up part of a broader movement to create a national biometric surveillance network. State, local and federal cooperation – along with information-sharing – makes the entire system tick.
The Center on Privacy and Technology released a report on the growing use of facial recognition called Perpetual Lineup back in 2016. There was an outburst of outrage then as well. But three years later, nothing has changed. In fact, the federal surveillance state has only expanded.
At the time of the 2016 Perpetual Lineup report, law enforcement face recognition networks included photos of more than 117 million adults. Many of the pictures enter the system when police take mugshots during booking after an arrest, but police increasingly have access to photos of innocent people. As of 2016, at least 16 states had allowed the FBI to access their driver’s license and ID photos.
The Perpetual Lineup report said the policy was even more widespread. As of 2016, at least a quarter of all U.S. law enforcement agencies had access to face recognition databases. According to the report, “at least 26 states (and potentially as many as 30) allow law enforcement to run or request searches against their databases of driver’s license and ID photos. Roughly one in two American adults has their photos searched this way.”
The FBI maintains the largest facial recognition system in the country. Known as Next Generation Identification Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS), it contains some 25 million state and federal criminal photos, mostly mugshots shared by state and local law enforcement agencies. Photos remain in the system even if a court never convicts the individual of a crime. It remains unclear what other types of photos end up in NGI-IPS. The FBI face recognition unit (FACE Services), along with police in seven states (as of 2016), can run photos against the FBI database
The FBI’s FACE Services not only runs facial recognition searches against its own database; it can also access a massive network of databases – including many state DMVs. As of 2016, it included 411.9 million photos. Last month the GAO director said the system now has access to more than 641 million face photos. In other words, the system has added some 229 photos in just three years.
The Washington Post report describes just how easy it is for federal agents to tap into state DMV systems.
“While some of the driver photo searches were made on the strength of federal subpoenas or court orders, many requests for searches involved nothing more than an email to a DMV office with the target’s “probe photo” attached. The official would then search the driver’s license database and provide details of any possible matches. The search capability was offered not just to help identify criminal suspects, but also to detect possible witnesses, victims, bodies, and innocent bystanders and other people not charged with crimes.”
With facial recognition technology, police and other government officials can not only identify people in photographs or video footage; they also have the capability to track individuals in real time. These systems allow law enforcement agents to use video cameras and continually scan everybody who walks by. According to the report, several major police departments have expressed an interest in this type of real-time tracking. Documents revealed agencies in at least five major cities, including Los Angeles, either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology with the capability, or expressed a written interest in buying it.
In 2013, the Los Angeles Police Department announced the installation of 16 new surveillance cameras in “undisclosed locations” across the San Fernando Valley. The cameras were mobile, wireless, and programmed to support face recognition “at distances of up to 600 feet.” LA Weekly reported that they fed into the LAPD’s Real-time Analysis and Critical Response Center, which would scan the faces in the feed against “hot lists” of wanted criminals or “documented” gang members. It appears that every person who walks by those cameras has her face searched in this way.
The implementation of the unconstitutional Real ID Act has helped facilitate the creation of the national surveillance database. Provisions in the act require every state to use standardized digital photographs on their driver’s licenses that can be easily read by facial recognition technology.
George Orwell’s Big Brother would have drooled over the all-encompassing surveillance system quietly under construction in the United States. Facial recognition technology linked to federal, state and local databases can track your every move just by pointing a camera at your face. It effectively turns each of us into a suspect standing in a perpetual lineup. The reported unreliability of facial recognition technology, especially when it comes to reading the features of ethnic minorities, makes this even more concerning.
Police operate these face recognition systems with little oversight and oftentimes in complete secrecy. For example, Ohio’s system remained almost completely unknown to the public for five years.
With their rapid proliferation, the potential for abuse and the threat to basic privacy rights posed by facial recognition surveillance, state and local governments need to make oversight and placing limits on law enforcement use of facial recognition a top priority. At the least, law enforcement agencies should be required to get local government approval in a public meeting before obtaining facial recognition technology. The TAC’s Local Ordinance to Limit Surveillance Technology covers this.
The good news is that there is growing resistance against facial recognition in cities and states.
San Francisco and Somerville, Mass. have both banned facial recognition technology. The New York Assembly is considering a bill to ban facial recognition in schools. And a bill introduced in the Michigan legislature would place a total ban on police use of facial recognition.
Despite the howls of outrage you hear from Capitol Hill, Congress won’t end facial recognition, or the surveillance state more broadly. They will only expand it. State and local action is the only hope to stop the expansion of the federal surveillance state.