ICE Searches of State Driver’s License Databases

Harrison Rudolph
Jul 8 · 3 min read

“[Y]our office is requested to conduct a facial recognition query of [Washington Department of Licensing] license applicants to locate all possible identity cards issued to [redacted].”

We have uncovered new documents showing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has requested face recognition searches of driver’s license databases in three states: Utah, Vermont, and Washington. We have four major findings —

  • These aren’t isolated incidents. Public records show that ICE has requested face recognition searches of driver’s license databases in Utah, Vermont, and Washington. Each of these states provide driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. If ICE is running face recognition searches in these states, ICE may well be searching driver’s license databases across many of the other ten states (and the District of Columbia) that allow undocumented residents to drive.
  • This bait and switch is a serious betrayal of residents’ trust. From what we can tell, none of these states inform undocumented residents when they apply for a driver’s license that they’re allowing ICE to request face recognition searches of their photos. Yet public records show that this is exactly what has happened.
  • This isn’t just about immigrants. It affects everyone. When ICE searches a state’s DMV database, they’re scanning and searching everyone’s faces — not just those of undocumented residents. Peer-reviewed research by Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and others has consistently shown that face analysis algorithms often underperform when analyzing the faces of women, young people, and people with darker skin tones. Thus, if you live in Utah, Washington, or Vermont, and are wondering how these searches may affect you, the key question is not “Am I an undocumented immigrant?” but rather “Does an opaque and likely biased algorithm think I look like an undocumented immigrant?”
  • This is a subversion of state will. As is explained further below, ICE is searching state driver’s license databases without clear state laws unambiguously authorizing those searches — and, occasionally, despite state laws that seem to block those searches. Thirteen states have passed laws to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented residents to encourage undocumented residents to drive lawfully. The public is safer when drivers have passed a road test and have car insurance. It’s also safer when a parent feels safe to take their child to a doctor or hospital. It’s common sense. But handing over drivers’ faces to ICE undermines these aims if immigrants are deterred from applying for a driver’s license in the first place.

Utah

Take one day in October 2017. At 2:13 p.m. ICE agents sent a photo for Utah staffers to compare against every driver’s license photo in Utah. Utah conducted a search on ICE’s behalf again 3 minutes later. They hit search again 33 minutes later. Again 3 minutes later. Again 2 minutes later. 3 minutes later. 3 minutes. 2 minutes. 4 minutes. According to public records, ICE did not receive a single likely match during any of these searches.

In Utah, records show ICE sending hundreds of requests for searches of the state’s driver’s license database using face recognition technology over a two and a half year period.

Vermont

“The anticipated result of that search will be a photo gallery of potential matches. These potential matches (candidates) will be forwarded to the authorized requester, along with any associated information stored with the photo in the VT DMV FR system.”

In Vermont, records show the state’s DMV approving ICE requests to search the state’s driver’s license database using face recognition technology. This despite Vermont law prohibiting the use of biometric technologies on driver’s license photographs.

Washington

“Please provide any and all information to include [an] applicant’s name, photographs, application, all related vehicle registrations, current and past identification documents for any match to the listed individuals.”

Washington law requires that any requested facial recognition search of DMV photos be approved by a judge via a court order. Yet records show that ICE used non-judicial (administrative) subpoenas to request face recognition searches of the state’s driver’s license database. These requests sought comprehensive data about Washington drivers: names, photographs, and application information.

Center on Privacy & Technology

Center on Privacy & Technology, Georgetown Law. Think tank focusing on the intersection of technology, privacy, and civil rights.

Harrison Rudolph

Written by

Center on Privacy & Technology

Center on Privacy & Technology, Georgetown Law. Think tank focusing on the intersection of technology, privacy, and civil rights.