Activists worry about potential abuse of face scans for ICE
BOSTON — Civil rights activists complained Monday of the potential for widespread abuse following confirmation that at least three states have scanned millions of driver’s license photos on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement without the drivers’ knowledge or consent.
Public records obtained by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology provided the first proof that ICE had sought such scans, which were conducted in Utah, Vermont and Washington.
All three states — which offer driving privileges to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally — agreed to the ICE requests, according to documents shared with The Associated Press on Monday and first reported by The Washington Post.
“States asked undocumented people to come out of the shadows to get licenses. Then ICE turns around and uses that to find them,” Alvaro Bedoya, the center’s director, said Monday.
ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke did not directly address written questions, including whether the agency used the scans to arrest or deport anyone.
“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 prosecution efforts,” Bourke said in a written response. “This is an established procedure that is consistent with other law-enforcement agencies.”
At least two cases in Utah and one in Washington state appeared to involve immigration enforcement, but the vast majority of requests from ICE in Utah were from its Homeland Security Investigations division, which has a limited role in immigration enforcement.
The documents for Vermont and Washington involved just a handful of records. The Utah document obtained by Georgetown was a ledger with details on more than 1,800 cases spanning two years of requests from multiple agencies, including other states, the FBI and the State Department.
The use of facial-recognition by state, federal and local law enforcement agencies has grown over the past decade as an FBI pilot project evolved into a full-scale program.
Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., let the FBI access their drivers’ license and identification photos, according to a Government Accountability Office report published last month. The report said the FBI currently has access to 640 million photos — including for U.S. visa applicants — with more than 390,000 photos searched for matches since 2011, the year the agency augmented its fingerprint database with facial analysis.
Privacy concerns over the burgeoning use of facial recognition are on the rise as public awareness of the virtually unregulated practice grows. San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, have in recent weeks become the first U.S. cities to ban the use of facial recognition by their police and city agencies.