The Washington Post obtained official records that show that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been using facial recognition technology to mine states’ department of motor vehicles records. According to The Post, civil rights activists worry this practice disproportionately affects people of color and creates “a heightened danger of misidentification and false arrests.”

Georgetown Law researchers provided The Post with government documents as proof that, “federal investigators have turned state departments of motor vehicles databases into the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.” Per The Post:

Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA and other “biometric data” taken from criminal suspects. But the DMV records contain the photos of a vast majority of a state’s residents, most of whom have never been charged with a crime.

Facial recognition is routinely used as an investigative tool. According to the Government Accountability Office, “since 2011, the FBI has logged more than 390,000 facial recognition searches of federal and local databases, including state DMV databases.” However, they don’t actually have permission to do so.

House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chair Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) told The Post there is no real structure when it comes to this practice. From The Post:

“Law enforcement’s access of state databases,” particularly DMV databases, is “often done in the shadows with no consent,” he said. 

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Neither Congress nor state legislatures have authorized the development of such a system, and growing numbers of Democratic and Republican lawmakers are criticizing the technology as a dangerous, pervasive and error-prone surveillance tool.

States like New York, District of Columbia and nearly a dozen others allow immigrants of undocumented status “to drive legally with full licenses or driving privilege cards, as long as they submit proof of in-state residency and pass the states’ driving-proficiency tests,” The Post reports. Additionally, “some of those states already allow the FBI to scan driver’s license photos, while others, such as Florida and New York, are negotiating with the FBI over access, according to the GAO.”

Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, says this makes it easier to target people who are already vulnerable within the legal system. “It’s really a surveillance-first, ask-permission-later system,” he said. “People think this is something coming way off in the future, but these [facial recognition] searches are happening very frequently today. The FBI alone does 4,000 searches every month, and a lot of them go through state DMVs.”

When asked for comment, the FBI referred The Post to Congressional testimony last month from Deputy Assistant Director Kimberly Del Greco, who said, facial-recognition technology was critical “to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected and preserve our security.”