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FBI, ICE Use State Driver's License Databases To Scan Photos


The FBI and ICE are using state driver's license databases as a sort of gold mine for facial recognition. That information is coming to light because of documents obtained by Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology and reported by The Washington Post. The documents show that federal agencies are looking through millions of Americans' photos without their consent or their knowledge. Alvaro Bedoya is the founding director of the Center on Privacy and Technology and joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

ALVARO BEDOYA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Can you explain what these records are? Where did you get them and what do they show?

BEDOYA: Sure. For several years now, we've been filing Freedom of Information Act requests with police departments and DMVs across the country. And in this most recent batch, we found that while states across the country, over a dozen states, are actually urging undocumented people to come out of the shadows and to get a driver's license, in at least three of them - in Washington, Utah and Vermont - ICE is actually taking advantage of that to secretly find and deport those people using face recognition technology. And in our view, this is a scandal and a huge betrayal of undocumented people.

MARTIN: Do you have evidence of that intention?

BEDOYA: I'm sorry - of what intention?

MARTIN: Of the intention of ICE to use the software recognition technology to deport people who are in this country illegally.

BEDOYA: Sure. So we do have written requests from ICE in all three states, requesting that Departments of Motor Vehicle find people who are undocumented for the purposes of investigation and arrest. We do have that evidence, yes.

MARTIN: And the Department of Motor Vehicles, I mean, what's their role in this? They're just granting access to ICE?

BEDOYA: Exactly right - often without the citizens of the state knowing about it. What happens is that ICE takes advantage of a two-decade-old law that says that, in general, DMV should cooperate with law enforcement. And this law was written before face recognition existed, and ICE uses it to ask that the DMVs comply. And the DMVs do so usually in secret and without telling the people in the state.

And I think it's really important for folks to realize that, even if you're not undocumented, this does affect you because the software is biased and doesn't really detect or find people of color, women or young people really well. The question isn't whether you're undocumented, but rather whether a flawed algorithm thinks you look like someone who's undocumented.

MARTIN: Literally, in The Washington Post's reporting of this, it highlights, as you just did, that the technology itself has a racial bias, that it actually generates more false positives or just isn't as accurate when it comes to people of color.

BEDOYA: Exactly right. Peer-reviewed study after peer-reviewed study - most recently out of MIT, Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru - have shown that the technology underperforms on people who are women, on people with darker skin tones. And despite all of this, the federal government, ICE, FBI and police departments across the country continue to use it as if it were neutral, and that's not, in fact, the case.

MARTIN: Has the FBI - because the FBI is using this as well, has the FBI or ICE explained their justification for using this technology?

BEDOYA: Sure. They typically say that it's an investigative tool. The FBI has been slightly more forthcoming than ICE. ICE has essentially hid behind a, you know, we-don't-talk-about-investigative-techniques response. But the FBI said that it's been an investigative tool in their arsenal. The issue is that, unlike a large majority of law enforcement technology, it is inherently biased against certain groups of people - people who tend to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system. And so they talk about it as if it's, you know, just one more tool in their toolkit, when reality - it's a biased tool, a secret tool (ph) and a problem.

MARTIN: Is there any sort of congressional authorization for something like this?

BEDOYA: We think there clearly is not. In fact, in the most recent two oversight hearings before the House Oversight Committee, Republicans and Democrats alike said that it was an outrage that the federal government was searching driver's licenses in this way. This is not authorized on a bipartisan basis.

MARTIN: Alvaro Bedoya with the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown. Thank you so much for your time.

BEDOYA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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