The Department of Motor Vehicles in Montpelier. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

[T]he Federal Bureau of Investigation can access information from the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicle’s facial recognition system, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

The national report, released Tuesday, focuses on how facial recognition technology is used by law enforcement agencies across the country.

The FBI can submit requests to the DMV to run searches through a database of 1.8 million driver’s license and identification photos in Vermont, the report states, citing a 2016 Government Accountability Office investigation.

The Georgetown report says that the technology, and the FBI’s access of it, could be in conflict with a Vermont statute that restricts the DMV from establishing procedures for identifying applicants “that involve the use of biometric identifiers.”

DMV Commissioner Robert Ide emphasized that the department maintains a strict protocol around facial recognition technology, and that outside law enforcement agencies do not have direct access to the database.

First and foremost, Ide said, facial recognition is used to detect fraudulent ID applications. The technology is used to check photos of people getting identification against the database, which can detect potential identity theft.

The department accepts applications from law enforcement agencies ranging from municipal police departments to the Vermont State Police to the FBI, he said. Any applications must be approved by the DMV, and the searches are carried out by DMV personnel.

When law enforcement agencies submit an application, they must include an image and they must have a case number. Many requests from the FBI have related to cold cases, where the image submitted to the DMV is of a body, according to Ide.

Access to the data is “very, very, very tightly controlled, and it has to be,” Ide said. He himself cannot access the data, he said.

According to information provided to IDE by the technology vendor, Vermont’s system currently contains a total of 2.6 million images of 709,782 unique individuals — a different number than listed in the report. Ide also challenges the report’s suggestion that the database could be against Vermont law.

The database includes any photographs taken by the DMV for REAL IDs, driver privilege cards and non-driver identification cards, he said.

“We are the custodian of a number of public records, and we take each and every one very, very seriously, and we work diligently to protect them all,” Ide said.

A page of the department’s website addressing facial recognition says the DMV uses the technology because it “wants to protect your identity from being stolen.”

The page also states that access to the data is “strictly controlled and regulated.” Though “authorized” agencies can submit images of criminal suspects to DMV investigators, the department says that no external law enforcement agency can directly access the system.

The Vermont State Police responded to a public records request by the report researchers that the agency does not use facial recognition technology.

According to the report, Vermont is one of at least 16 states that allow searches by the FBI in databases of driver’s license and ID photos.

Half of American adults have their photos in a law enforcement facial recognition system, the investigation finds.

Facial recognition does have clear law enforcement benefits, according to the report, but the technology is largely unregulated and raises concerns about how it is being used.

In the past, databases of biometric information, such as fingerprints or DNA, have primarily comprised information from criminal arrests, according to the report.

“By running face recognition searches against 16 states’ driver’s license photo databases, the FBI has built a biometric network that primarily includes law-abiding Americans. This is unprecedented and highly problematic,” the report states.

The report raises concerns on a national level that use of the technology is relatively unfettered in parts of the country. It could have implications for constitutional rights, and has the potential to stifle First Amendment guarantees of free speech, the report says, citing a history of surveillance of civil rights protests.

Meanwhile, databases often have issues of accuracy, the report states. The systems rely on police officers to verify whether a face is a match — and many entrusted with that responsibility are not specifically trained to in how to do so.

The technology has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, the report states, citing a study authored by the FBI that suggests the technology may not be as accurate for black people as it is for other races.

The report includes more than two dozen recommendations for state policy, law enforcement and communities on how to handle facial recognition, including a suggestion that states should only allow law enforcement to search identification and driver’s license photo databases if the practice has been approved by a legislative vote.

Jay Diaz, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said the report raises significant concerns about protections of individuals’ rights within the DMV facial recognition program.

“We don’t know what safeguards there are,” Diaz said

Unlike other biometric databases, the vast majority of people whose information is in the DMV facial recognition technology have no criminal background, he said. “These are just everyday Vermonters who have applied for and received licenses to drive,” Diaz said.

He said it is important to get more information about the policies the DMV has in place about law enforcement access to the database, how the facial recognition software is governed under state law, and how many times law enforcement has had access to the database.

“In this country we have a right to privacy and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice these rights just to get a license,” Diaz said.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, one of the sponsors of an omnibus privacy bill earlier this year, said the questions raised in the report about the use of the technology are “legitimate.”

“I just never been made aware that it is available, and now that I know it is available I have to question whether or not is has been used,” Benning said.

Benning said he is interested in exploring the topic further. He said the public has a right to know what technology is being used by law enforcement.

Facial recognition is especially topical as other technologies, including police body cameras, become more common, he said.

Twitter: @emhew. Elizabeth Hewitt is the Sunday editor for VTDigger. She grew up in central Vermont and holds a graduate degree in magazine journalism from New York University.

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