SALT LAKE CITY — Facial recognition technology might seem benign — helping you unlock your phone or zip past airport security.
But, according to newly released documents, federal agencies are using the technology to scan millions of Americans’ faces without their knowledge or consent — and without the approval of Congress. And the technology is now being used to find and deport immigrants in the United States illegally.
The documents, obtained by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology and first reported on by The Washington Post, revealed that ICE and the FBI have searched state driver’s license databases, turning them into a “facial-recognition gold mine,” scanning through millions of Americans' photographs without their consent or knowledge, the Post reported.
Some states allow immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to get driver’s licenses, according to NPR. In at least three of these states — Utah, Washington and Vermont — ICE agents made requests to search through Department of Motor Vehicle records repositories.
Utah and Vermont complied, allowing ICE agents to "secretly find and deport those people using face recognition technology," Alvaro Bedoya, the founding director of Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, told NPR.
"In our view, this is a scandal, and huge betrayal of undocumented people," Bedoya told NPR.
Harrison Rudolph, an associate at the center, told The New York Times that practice should be stopped.
“States never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver’s license databases using facial recognition to looks for folks,” he said. “These states have never told undocumented people that when they apply for a driver’s license they are also turning over their face to ICE. That is a huge bait and switch.”
In Utah, federal access was granted despite the state Legislature’s explicit stance against such practices, according to Clare Garvie, also with the Georgetown Center. The FBI can search 5.2 million driver's license photos and mug shots in Utah, the Deseret News reported last year.
"The Utah legislature rejected the federal info-sharing required under the REAL ID Act as 'inimical to the security and well-being' of the state and 'adopted in violation of the principles of federalism,'" Garvie said in a tweet Monday.
Some Utah lawmakers have spoken out in response to the documents.
"It is not OK that the Utah state DMV officials turned over data to ICE to help set up a surveillance system,” Rep. Brian S. King, D-Salt Lake City, tweeted Monday. "I'll be joining with legislative colleagues to get answers about how this happened. I'm sure our concerns will be bipartisan."
Utah officials pushed back against the reports Monday that the Utah Department of Public Safety allowed ICE to comb through Utahns' driver’s license photos using face recognition technology, the Deseret News reported Monday.
While Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said they were “very concerned” about the reports, they said the public safety department told them that the reports were inaccurate.
"Federal agencies or agents don't have free roam of our database. They don't have access to it at all. They have to go through us to get information they are searching," public safety department spokeswoman Marissa Cote told the Deseret News. "We do respect people's privacy."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah also released a statement Monday calling the facial recognition searches a "breach of trust" to Utahns and pledging to investigate.
"Without knowledge or consent, everyone with a Utah driver’s license or driving privilege card may have had their photo analyzed thousands of times by facial recognition software that is known to be inaccurate," Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel with ACLU of Utah, stated. "These reports confirm that a massive, hidden surveillance infrastructure isn’t just science fiction, it’s already happening."
This isn’t the first time that law enforcement’s use of face recognition technology has come under public scrutiny. Researchers have raised concerns about the technology’s accuracy and its difficulty in detecting facial differences between women, young people and people of color, the Deseret News reported last year.
A 2018 MIT study found that when the person in the photo is a white man, face recognition software is right 99% of the time, but the darker the skin, the more errors arise — up to nearly 35% for images of darker-skinned women.
There have already been mistakes leading to the arrest of innocent people because of facial recognition technology.
This unreliability, experts say, could be particularly dangerous when the technology is utilized to find immigrants living in the United States illegally.
"I think it's really important for folks to realize that even if you're not undocumented it does affect you," Bedoya told NPR, "because the software is biased and doesn't really protect 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," Bedoya said.
The ACLU has called for a complete moratorium on the use of face recognition technology by law enforcement.
"We think even accurate face surveillance poses a profound threat to civil liberties and is easily abused by law enforcement to further target people of color, silence activists and violate the human rights of immigrants," Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, told the Deseret News last year. "We can stop this now before it gets out of control."
The hearings followed a report from the Government Accountability Office which stated that over 641 million photos of Americans were included in FBI facial recognition databases, the Deseret News reported in June.27 comments on this story
The report found that the “the FBI hadn't fully adhered to privacy laws and policies or done enough to ensure accuracy of its face recognition capabilities.” In testimony at the hearing, the office stated that out of the six recommendations noted back in 2016, only one had been fully addressed.
"American citizens are being placed in jeopardy as a result of a system that is not ready for prime time," said Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at the June 4 hearing.