Utah uses facial recognition tech to search driver’s license photos at ICE’s request

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah uses facial recognition technology to search its database of driver’s licenses, mug shots and booking photos at the request of federal agencies, including the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the state’s Department of Public Safety confirmed Monday.

Between October 2015 and November 2017, ICE officials asked at least three states that offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants to search through their databases for people the agency was searching for, documents obtained and released by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology show.

Utah and Vermont both complied with the request.

The Washington Post first reported on the documents Sunday, saying that agencies like the FBI and ICE “find state driver’s license photos are a gold mine for facial recognition searches.” Other national publications soon jumped into the ring, and many decried the use of the controversial technology for such purposes.

The Utah Public Safety Department also signed an agreement with ICE in 2010 to share data of undocumented immigrants that were charged and convicted of crimes.

Utah’s Department of Public Safety, however, said the use of facial recognition software is not exactly what people think.

The state has a database called the Utah Statewide Information and Analysis Center, or SIAC. This database contains not just driver’s license photos, but mug shots and photos of those booked into jail, as well.

If a federal agency, like ICE, wants to use this database to find someone, they must present the state with a specific criminal case number and a photo of the person. The Department of Public Safety will then use facial recognition technology to see if that photo pulls up any matches in its system — which means the software searches through the photos of every single person who has gotten a driver’s license, had their mug shot taken or been booked into jail in Utah.

Federal agencies do not have access to the database, however, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Marissa Cote stressed.

During the period of time covered by the documents, ICE requested a search in Utah 49 times, Cote added. Only 10% of the time did those searches bring up a match, and they’re usually related to things like heroin trafficking, narcotic smuggling, credit card fraud and other similar issues, she said.

Cote said that identifying information is "not usually" sent along with photos.

But the use of facial recognition technology is still a highly controversial practice — especially when it’s used to search through the photos of everyone who has ever gotten a driver’s license or been taken into custody in Utah.

While not many agencies in Utah use facial recognition, the Utah Driver’s License Division uses the tech to catch fraudulent records, division director Chris Caras told KSL.com in May. However, Caras claimed at the time the division does not use its facial recognition technology in conjunction with law enforcement.

“We take privacy very seriously and we don’t want to violate the public trust," Caras told KSL.com in May. "We know that people come to us seeking a service and that we provide a credential that doesn’t just say they have the privilege to operate their motor vehicle but is also the most widely-used identification documentation. So we take that very seriously, but we also know they came to us with that in mind. They weren’t meaning to facilitate a lot of other functionality, and so we try to be respectful of that."

The software the driver’s license division uses can’t search for matches using photos outside of its own system, and it’s “kind of nice” when other agencies occasionally ask the division for help identifying someone to simply say the system can’t handle it, Caras explained.

If the division ever does decide to upgrade their system to something that can inject photos from outside its own system and compare them with those in the system, a discussion about privacy is definitely something that will need to happen, Caras told KSL.com in May.

But the Statewide Information and Analysis Center can inject photos from outside its system, meaning federal agencies have access to everything the driver’s license division has, and more. Officials have not yet clarified how DPS had access to photos from the Driver's License Division.

“(It’s) important that Utahns know that these searches are indeed searches of all of their faces. So they should be concerned, whether or not they are immigrants. Particularly women, young people and people with darker skin tones — the demographics in which this technology underperforms,” said Alvaro Bedoya, founding director at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

Cote said Utahns should rest assured that their information will remain private and secure unless the search returns a match.

Harrison Rudolph, a privacy expert and associate at the Georgetown center, told The New York Times that the records “painted a new picture of a practice that should be shut down.”

“This is a scandal,” Rudolph told the news organization. “States have never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver’s license databases using facial recognition to look for folks.”

The practice of sharing information with ICE on request seems at odds with recent actions of local officials, including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

In June, Biskupski said she directed city police to “not enforce any federal immigration” policy or ask an individual about their immigration status ahead of possible ICE roundups of undocumented citizens.

Other local officials have also weighed in since the Post's report.

Through Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said they were “very concerned” about initial reports of ICE and the FBI using the databases, “Governor Herbert believes in respecting the privacy of Utah residents and he is committed to ensuring that Utah’s facial recognition system will only be used for law enforcement purposes and never against law abiding Utahns,” the governor’s office said in an emailed statement Monday.


Others are not so sure, however, about the process.

“These reports confirm that a massive, hidden surveillance infrastructure isn’t just science fiction, it’s already happening,” the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in another emailed statement.

Sharing driver license information with ICE allows the agency to “go on a fishing expedition,” Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, said.

San Francisco recently became the first city in the U.S. to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other city departments. Though generally considered the nation’s most tech-centric area, the city said this ban on technology is part of broader legislation that requires departments to establish use policies and obtain approval before deploying surveillance technology.

The move by San Francisco is also part of a larger conversation and controversy happening around privacy. Last year, civil rights groups called on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling the company’s facial recognition technology to the government, and others claim this type of surveillance feels a little too close to Big Brother.

An informal poll conducted on KSL.com of over 700 readers found that 48% supported banning government agencies from using facial recognition technology, 38% did not support a ban and 14% supported a ban, but with some exceptions.

The poll did not control for multiple votes by individuals.

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