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States let undocumented immigrants get drivers’ licenses. Then they’re handing their photos to ICE.

Federal officials are using driver's license databases and facial-recognition technology to hunt down undocumented residents.

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers apprehend undocumented immigrants in Riverside, California. CREDIT: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers apprehend undocumented immigrants in Riverside, California. CREDIT: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

At least three states that let undocumented immigrants legally obtain drivers’ licenses have opened up their photo databases to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in a practice dating back to the Obama administration.

ICE has run facial-recognition searches on state department of motor vehicle databases in Utah, Vermont, and Washington, all of which allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally using state-issued IDs.

That startling revelation is part of a Washington Post story Sunday, based on a trove of documents obtained by Georgetown Law researchers through public records.

The documents show how officials with ICE and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have let facial-recognition technology loose on state driver’s license databases to help solve relatively minor crimes, like immigration violations and petty theft.

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“They’ve just given access to that to the FBI,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) said at a hearing last month. “No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver’s license, got their driver’s licenses. 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.”

The practice is not limited to federal law enforcement, The Post reported, with local police also requesting that DMV officials in other states search their databases.

But using facial-recognition technology on state driver’s license databases has become routine among federal law enforcement, according to the Post. Many of those searches aren’t governed by any legal process like a warrant or subpoena, the Post reported. Rather, federal law enforcement officials make informal requests to state DMV officials, with whom they have close working relationships.

The records show 2,000 searches by federal officials in Utah between 2015 and 2017, about half of which came from local law enforcement across the country while the other half came from federal officials.

Officials in Vermont stopped the practice in 2017, they said, while officials in Utah declined The Post’s request for comment. Washington state officials said the state only shares information from its DMV database with law enforcement under a court order.

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A report by the Government Accountability Office in May found that the FBI has not taken adequate steps to ensure that it doesn’t receive photos of innocent people from state officials as investigative leads.

“FBI officials cannot be sure they are implementing face recognition capabilities in a manner that protects individuals’ privacy,” the report concluded.

The practice has broad privacy implications at a time when technology is moving faster than laws and regulations. News about the practice also comes as the Trump administration is using every tool at its disposal to crack down on undocumented immigrants across the country.

Officials at the technology behemoth Amazon.com met with ICE last summer to discuss how the agency could use Amazon’s facial-recognition technology, called Rekognition.

Those meetings focused on a division of ICE called Homeland Security Investigations that has used facial-recognition technology for “criminal investigations related to fraudulent activities, identity theft and child exploitation crimes,” the agency said in a statement at the time.

President Donald Trump has threatened sweeping ICE raids that could target thousands of undocumented immigrants across the country unless Congress tightens U.S. asylum laws, a move he delayed last last month.

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U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) expressed concern that technology providing “unfettered access” to facial-recognition data could easily be misused.

“No one should have to be thrown into a giant federal facial-recognition surveillance database merely as a condition of driving a car,” he told ThinkProgress in a statement.

“States that have given federal agencies, including ICE, unfettered access to these records should warn their citizens this is occurring and ensure federal agencies only access these records based on legitimate, narrowly tailored requests,” he said.

“I’m especially concerned that Republican efforts to require Americans to obtain photo ID simply to exercise their constitutional right to vote may be forcing Americans into this dragnet surveillance system.”

Clare Garvie, a senior associate with Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, told the Post that local governments have “encouraged” undocumented immigrants to submit their private information and now are obligated to keep that information confidential.

“To me, it’s an insane breach of trust to then turn around and allow ICE access to that,” Garvie said.

This post has been updated to add Wyden’s statement.