U.S. federal law enforcement agencies are using photos from state Department of Motor Vehicle registries to train facial recognition software according to a new report.

The Washington Post, referring to data obtained by Georgetown Law researchers, said in a story today that the Federal Bureau of Investigation along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been scanning hundreds of millions of photos to create an unofficial surveillance system.

The photos are said to give the agencies a new layer of information that can be used to potentially track criminals but also those who have never committed a crime. Twenty-one states allow the data to be accessed by federal authorities without the need for a court order or warrant, including Texas and Pennsylvania. A notable exception is Washington state.


The report comes amid a growing concern over the use of facial recognition ranging from privacy concerns to doubts about its effectiveness. In July last year, a facial recognition system from Amazon.com Inc. falsely identified members of Congress as criminals. The city of San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition software within its borders in May over concerns that the technology was “uniquely dangerous and oppressive.”

Concerns over the technology remain, however, from both sides of the political divide.

“No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver’s license, got their driver’s licenses,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “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.”

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings told the Post that law enforcement’s access of state databases, particularly DMV databases, is “often done in the shadows with no consent.”

Further concerns have been raised given the use of the technology by ICE to track undocumented immigrants. Some states allow them to obtain driver’s licenses, with those people potentially providing information that can be used by ICE against them.

Indeed, Clare Garvie, a senior associate at the Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, told the Post, the state 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,” she said.

The federal government is not alone in using facial recognition software to track criminals and others. The technology has seen some success in New York City, where police have used celebrity pictures to help identify and arrest suspects.

Photo: edenpictures/Flickr

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