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ICE Is Running Millions of Facial-Recognition Scans on Driver's-License Photos

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 2/27/2020 Roberto Baldwin
The agency has run millions of scans of people holding licenses in Maryland, with no court or state approval, in what appears to be a massive breach of privacy. © Colin Anderson Productions - Getty Images The agency has run millions of scans of people holding licenses in Maryland, with no court or state approval, in what appears to be a massive breach of privacy.
  • The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is using facial-recognition scans to identify potential undocumented immigrants without court or state oversight.
  • Anyone with a Maryland license is now open to an ICE search, the Washington Post is reporting.
  • Unchecked access to these types of databases has been abused before by enforcement officers.

In what appears to be a huge breach of privacy, the Washington Post has learned, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has been granted access to Maryland's driver's-license photo database without first getting approval from the courts or state officials.

The enforcement agency is using the database to target undocumented immigrants who have legally obtained licenses. Since 2013, 275,000 licenses have been issued without requiring the driver to provide proof of residence. The idea is that undocumented immigrants would be safer drivers if they can get insurance because they have passed the state's requirements for a license.

Now the system meant to make the roads safer is being used to track down and arrest immigrants. Harrison Rudolph, a senior associate at Georgetown University Law School's Center on Privacy and Technology, told the Washington Post, "It's a bait and switch. ICE is using biometric information in the shadows, without government notice or public approval, to hunt down the most vulnerable people."

a person standing in front of a computer: FBI and ICE Use State DMV Databases For Federal Facial Recognition Searches © George Frey - Getty Images FBI and ICE Use State DMV Databases For Federal Facial Recognition Searches

Allowing ICE access to private information on the residents of Maryland without, apparently, any oversight or warrant, sets a precedent that driver information is an open book to anyone in enforcement who wants it. This type of unfettered access to such a large database of information has led to previous accounts of enforcement agents using access to spy on or stalk people.

Research

Legal citizens and documented immigrants shouldn't rest easy. ICE has been known to arrest the wrong person during sweeps. Photo-recognition systems are capable of making mistakes, and those errors could lead to the wrong individual spending time in jail while trying to prove they're a citizen or documented immigrant.

While other states, including Utah, Vermont, and Washington, also use their driver's license-databases to match a person's identity, those searches are done by state officials, putting a firewall between the data and enforcement officials. Maryland allows ICE officials across the country access to the state's system without any oversight or court approval.

This will likely deter some people who want to safely drive on the road and who have current knowledge of driving regulations. Without a license, it's unlikely they'll get insurance and the financial protection it grants to the person behind the wheel and everyone else sharing the road with them.

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