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ICE Scanning Driver's Licenses to Identify Undocumented Immigrants

photo of a hand grabbing a chain link fence with the United States flag on the other side
By Andrew Leonatti on July 16, 2019

In a move straight out of a science fiction movie, news broke earlier this month that the state governments of Utah, Vermont, and Washington scanned millions of driver’s license photos for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Facial recognition technology has been on the scene for several years now. But this appears to be the first time that states allowed ICE access to driver’s license photos without the license holders’ consent. Those three states allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

“States asked undocumented people to come out of the shadows to get licenses. Then ICE turns around and uses that to find them,” said Alvaro Bedoya, the head of the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, which obtained the records through a Freedom of Information Act request.

ICE Argues Business as Usual

For its part, ICE says that they can collaborate with federal, state, local, and international agencies during its investigations. One official in Utah said every ICE request for access to the license photos was related to law enforcement, and that ICE has identified suspects in drug trafficking and identity theft rings.

Additionally, the FBI currently has access to 640 million photos that it can scan, although it has only looked at a tiny fraction of those since 2011.

But civil rights activists are skeptical of law enforcement’s restraint in when and how they look at the photos, worrying that the Trump administration will abuse the technology in its immigration crackdown.

Earlier this year, in fact, San Francisco took that skepticism one step further, banning police and city agencies from using facial recognition software. Somerville, Massachusetts, soon joined, making them the only two cities in the country with that type of blanket prohibition in place.

Do You Have Any Options?

Beyond San Francisco and Somerville, it appears that our society may be moving in a more Orwellian direction. For example, Taylor Swift already deploys facial recognition technology at her concerts to look for stalkers.

And while governments may be able to stop private entities from abusing the tech, who can stop the government? Will you have the ability to “opt out”? Only time will tell. But for many undocumented immigrants in the U.S., the only option may be to move back into the shadows rather than risk having a photo on record.

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