Privacy SOS

Getting a new driver’s license? Brace yourself for FBI face recognition analysis.

Last week, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released a report describing the FBI’s facial recognition systems and powers. The report revealed that the FBI has agreements with 16 states to grant the FBI’s Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) Services Unit access to driver’s license images, and that the Bureau is in active negotiation with 18 states to do the same. Massachusetts is one of the states reportedly negotiating such an agreement.

Today, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a public records request with the state Registry of Motor Vehicles to learn more about exactly what they are planning. Here’s what we wrote:

The ACLU has several serious concerns about facial recognition systems.

First, they are often inaccurate. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation already uses facial recognition systems, which, as a 2011 Boston.com article reported, make mistakes. The negative impact of such mistakes are magnified when information collected for one purpose—obtaining legal license to operate a motor vehicle—is used for another—matching images of Massachusetts drivers to people of interest to the FBI. For most people inaccurately identified by facial recognition algorithms at the RMV, the result will be a frustrating inconvenience: they are forced to go to the RMV to fix the problem. But much more serious civil liberties and civil rights violations could follow if the FBI is granted access to the RMV database of driver images. This is particularly disturbing in light of the GAO report’s finding that FBI has insufficiently tested its facial recognition systems to determine their accuracy.

Second, facial recognition systems threaten the constitutional right to anonymously criticize the government, and subject people not suspected of criminal activity to law enforcement scrutiny simply by virtue of going outside, posting an image on social media, or obtaining a driver’s license. After September 11, 2001, the FBI changed its policies to allow its agents to conduct investigations on Americans absent any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Since then, the FBI has investigated activists involved with the Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and environmental justice movements, among many others.Consequently, if the FBI has access to driver’s images in the RMV database for use in facial recognition matching or searching, Massachusetts residents may be subjected to FBI facial recognition surveillance because of their constitutionally protected political speech. Massachusetts’ residents do not knowingly sign up for such surveillance when they get driver’s licenses in the Commonwealth.

Third, both of these concerns are exacerbated by FBI secrecy and failures to implement accountability, auditing, and transparency mechanisms. According to the GAO report, the FBI has failed to conduct (1) audits to ensure FBI officials are conducting facial recognition searches in a manner that comports with Criminal Justice Information Services policy and doesn’t violate Americans’ privacy, and (2) operational reviews to ensure the system is functioning as intended. The GAO also reports that the Department of Justice, the FBI’s parent organization, has failed to publicly describe its plans for facial recognition in a complete and timely manner, as it is required to do through Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs). These PIAs should have been completed and publicized before implementation of facial recognition systems, not after, and they should have been updated before, not after, DOJ/FBI made changes to the system that could reasonably implicate privacy rights for millions of people across the nation.

Our request seeks the following records:

  1. All documents describing limitations the RMV seeks to impose on the FBI’s access to, use of, or collection of driver images contained in RMV database or files;
  2. All communications between the DOT, RMV, or any of their representatives and other agencies or officials within the state government, or with federal agencies or federal officials, pertaining to the FACE Unit;
  3. All records documenting public notice of the RMV’s ongoing negotiations with the FBI over the FACE Unit MOU;
  4. The MOU between DOT/RMV and FBI pertaining to the FACE Unit or any other FBI access to RMV driver images; and
  5. The most recent internal audit of the RMV’s own face recognition system.

Stay tuned to see what we get in response to this public records request. 

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.