On The Front Lines
Rutherford Institute Launches Inquiry Into Government Use of Drivers’ License Photos to Build Facial Recognition Database, Track Citizens
CHICAGO, Ill. — Pushing back against the expansion of secret government surveillance programs at the expense of individual privacy, The Rutherford Institute is asking the State of Illinois to disclose information about its participation in the federal government’s scheme to establish a massive facial recognition database by collecting the drivers’ license photographs of millions of Americans.
In a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made on behalf of Illinois resident Dmitry Feofanov, The Rutherford Institute is seeking details about the federal government’s facial recognition program, which allows government agents to track citizens whenever they are in public. The request comes after it was disclosed in July 2019 that the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have mined information kept by state DMVs to create a massive database of biometric photos and personal information without the consent of citizens.
“Surveillance, DNA and biometric technologies have become convenient tools in the hands of government agencies to render null and void the Constitution’s requirements of privacy and its prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “For a long time, the government was required to at least observe some basic restrictions on when, where and how it could access someone’s biometrics and use it against them. That is no longer the case. While the Fourth Amendment was created to prevent government officials from tracking a person’s movements or searching an individual’s person or property without a warrant and probable cause—evidence that some kind of criminal activity was afoot—the founders could scarcely have imagined a world in which we needed protection against widespread government breaches of our privacy on a biometric level.”
Facial recognition programs, which can be used to identify people in photos, video, or in real-time, employ sophisticated technology to identify individuals using their faces. Advanced cameras scan a person’s features and then compare the “biometric” data obtained with a database of biometric photographs to determine the person’s identity. Law enforcement currently use mobile devices to identify people during police stops. The FBI’s Next Generation Identification system has dramatically expanded the government’s surveillance capacity by using a variety of photos and other biometric data, cross-referenced against the nation’s growing network of surveillance cameras, to not only track people but create a permanent “recognition” file on them within the government’s databases. However, the government’s capacity to track citizens is dependent on its database of biometric photographs of identified individuals.
In an effort to expand the government’s database, federal law enforcement agencies, and the FBI and ICE in particular, have been obtaining the photographs and associated identities of persons from state agencies that obtain biometric photographs in connection with issuing drivers’ licenses. According to the Government Accounting Office, since 2011, the FBI has conducted over 390,000 facial-recognition searches of federal and local databases, including state drivers’ license databases. Federal investigators have also established ongoing working relationships with state licensing officials. In its FOIA request to the Illinois Secretary of State, which is responsible for issuing drivers’ licenses in the state, The Rutherford Institute is seeking to know the extent to which the state has disclosed residents’ drivers’ license photographs to any federal or other government agencies.