CHICAGO -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has used facial recognition technology to comb through millions of driver's license photos, a move experts say violates the privacy of both immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and at risk of deportation, and legal residents and citizens.
The searches were uncovered in documents obtained through public record requests by Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology. They found ICE officials requested to look through state license photos, and at least two states complied, The Washington Post reported Sunday.
In the past two years, Illinois has received three or four requests from federal law enforcement, including ICE, for information on residents' legal status, and has turned down every request, said Dave Druker, spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state's office.
ICE would need to have a name, some other identifying factor, and indicate the person was a suspect in a crime in order to access the state's database, Druker said. Broad searches or checking on immigration status is not enough, he said.
Driving records and photos in Illinois are fed into the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, which law enforcement can search, for example, when someone is pulled over for speeding. Other agencies can access information on individuals in that system, but they cannot search broadly for people in the country illegally.
Illinois residents living in the U.S. without legal permission can obtain a driver's license, called a Temporary Visitor Driver's License. More than a dozen states encourage immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to get driver's licenses, said Alvaro Bedoya, founding director of the Center on Privacy and Technology.
The states that allowed ICE to search through their license photo databases, Utah and Vermont, did not tell people in the U.S. illegally that their facial maps were being turned over to ICE, the center found.
The center sought information from every state on any outside entities that had asked to access the photo ID databases, among other inquiries, Bedoya said. Some states denied part or all of the center's requests.
Documents from Washington state indicated that ICE requested to search its driver's license photos, but did not indicate whether the state complied with the request, Bedoya said. Utah documents showed ICE conducted more than 200 searches of the state's database, Bedoya said.
"Undocumented people stay in the shadows for a reason. They're afraid that if they make contact with the state or federal government that it's going to be used against them," Bedoya said. "This is a scandal. This is a betrayal of trust."
Clare Garvie, the senior associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology that gathered documents from departments of motor vehicles, said the Illinois secretary of state's office denied the bulk of her public records request.
The use of facial recognition among law enforcement agencies is not new, and its uses extend past police work. One of its most well-known uses is in tagging features on social media.
Criticism of facial recognition technology is widespread. Studies have shown it can be less accurate identifying women and people of color. Earlier this year, dozens of artificial intelligence researchers signed a letter asking Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies because of its biases.
Outside of police use, Illinois' strict law on the use of facial recognition software and other biometric information, which also includes fingerprint and iris scans, has made it a hotbed of litigation.
Companies such as Google, Facebook and Snapchat have faced allegations involving biometrics, and some companies have opted out of rolling out products that use facial recognition in the state.
The data includes biological or physical characteristics, and privacy advocates point out that if someone's biometric data is hacked, that person can't get a new face or fingerprints.
But the state's Biometric Information Privacy Act does not apply to state or local government agencies, including law enforcement.
The Chicago Police Department has access to facial recognition technology but it doesn't use it often, spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in an email. "When it is used, its only after a crime has occurred," he said.
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