ICE Has Used State Driver’s License Databases to Track Down Undocumented Residents

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As if the anxiety level in immigrant communities wasn’t already high enough, an exposé published in the Washington Post today revealed that ICE has been attempting to use facial recognition technology to comb through driver’s license photos in several states where undocumented immigrants are permitted to obtain licenses with proof of in-state residency. Currently, a dozen states allow undocumented residents to obtain a driver’s license, with several more states such considering legislation at this time. 

Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, troubled by the practice, first alerted the publication of this unauthorized use of surveillance between the years of 2014 and 2017. “The state has told [undocumented immigrants], has encouraged them, to submit that information. To me, it’s an insane breach of trust to then turn around and allow ICE access to that,” Clare Garvie, the lead researcher behind the Georgetown report, told the Washington Post

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This concern parallels one of the fears that some U.S. residents have had over adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census; though technically the information submitted to the Census Bureau remains confidential, the idea that sensitive information like immigration status and residency could be in the hands of authorities will likely discourage upwards of 4 million people from participating in next year’s census, an inaccurate count that will have great implications on what type of funding those communities receive or how they will be represented by elected officials.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle on the House Oversight Committee told the Post that they were troubled by the prospect of federal law enforcement agents like ICE or the FBI having access to state databases; as of now, these agents are combing the data without having permission from the driver’s license owners, let alone the go-ahead from legislators. Representative Elijah E. Cummings explained in a statement that this sort of surveillance is often “done in the shadows with no consent.”

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As of right now, we’re aware that ICE agents have been given access to state driver’s license databases in Utah and Vermont, allowing authorities to harvest information like names, car registration information, and addresses. We also know that the state of Washington was hit with a subpoena to allow ICE into their system, though Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee had pledged last year to prevent personal information from driver’s license registrations from ending up in the hands of immigration authorities. 

Even more troubling is the fact that facial recognition technology can ensnare innocent bystanders into the mix because the technology simply is not accurate enough to be a reliable tool in sweeping measures like immigration enforcement. The technology is even less accurate in matching up faces when those faces belong to women or people of color, a bias that many tech experts have taken issue with when the technology is used for surveillance.

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