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FBI and ICE access millions of DMV driver's license photos for facial recognition
Security & privacy

Your driver’s license photos are ‘gold mine’ in mass facial recognition searches

As technology advances and artificial intelligence (AI) evolves, one of the most concerning topics regarding the future of our privacy has become the use of facial recognition — and for good reason. It’s no longer just a practice employed in far-away countries or in small doses; it’s here and becoming more widespread.

Amazon, along with a host of other firms, is working on commercializing facial recognition tech and some companies have used photos to train systems without informing users or gaining consent. Now, the use of facial recognition is even becoming more prevalent at U.S. airports as testing continues by some airlines and government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.

What you might not know is that the government’s use of facial recognition is much bigger than that, and it’s not just the cameras that scan your faces such as those at the borders that recently made headlines. In fact, it’s your driver’s license photos that have become a “gold mine” for various government agencies.

Law enforcement and your privacy

When you look at the extent of mass surveillance in China, facial recognition is everywhere from satellites to airports to specially equipped police officers who wander through the crowds. It’s becoming a completely different world where Chinese residents’ activities are constantly documented and privacy is a thing of the past.

Of course, that raises concerns that that level of mass surveillance could eventually become commonplace in additional countries around the world. That’s why a number of advocacy groups are fighting the increase in facial recognition usage in the U.S. due to not only privacy implications, but the reliability of those systems.

But it’s not newly installed cameras you see popping up that you need to worry about; it’s the camera at your local DMV. The next time you go in to have your driver’s license photo updated, you won’t just be smiling for the DMV employee.

Driver’s licenses used more than you know

A new report published by The Washington Post details just how widespread facial recognition use is becoming throughout the country, and it revolves around your driver’s license photo.

Without consent, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have reportedly turned driver’s license databases across a number of states into a facial recognition “gold mine.”

The details came to light with documents obtained by Georgetown University researchers through public records requests, and what they found is that those agencies have been scanning through hundreds of millions of driver’s license photos stored in states’ Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) databases over the past several years.

The Post’s report said 21 states including Texas, Pennsylvania along with the District of Columbia allow federal agents to scan driver’s license photos.

Their unofficial surveillance infrastructure has even been used to track down “low-level” crimes such as petty theft and cashing stolen checks. According to The New York Times, this is the “first known instance of ICE using facial recognition to scan state driver’s license databases, including photos of legal residents and citizens.”

Lawmakers in one of the world’s most tech-savvy cities, San Francisco, recently banned any government use of facial recognition, becoming the first in the U.S. to do so. Somerville, Massachusetts followed soon after.

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