Faces of 120 Million People in State Driver’s License Databases Accessed for Criminal Investigations

Wednesday, June 19, 2013
(photo: Connecticut DMV)

Governments at all levels in the United States are increasingly accessing and using drivers license information as part of their criminal investigations, according to an in-depth assessment by The Washington Post.


More than 120 million people with drivers’ licenses and non-driver ID cards are now in searchable photo databases that states use to prevent fraud. But these same databases are now utilized by police to hunt down suspects, accomplices and “even innocent bystanders,” the Post found.


Law enforcement has defended using the systems, which were also utilized by the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq to identify insurgents. Supporters say the photo-ID records have helped capture murderers and other dangerous criminals.


But in light of the controversies involving the National Security Agency’s domestic intelligence work, news of the facial-recognition databases have fueled concerns about how far the government should go with collecting or repurposing personal information of Americans.


“Where is government going to go with that years from now?” state Representative Brett Geymann (R-Louisiana), told The Washington Post. “Here your driver’s license essentially becomes a national ID card.”


A total of 37 states now use facial-recognition technology as part of their driver’s-license registries—of which 26 permit local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies to search or request searches of photo databases to assist with criminal matters. In most cases, there was little public notice of this expanded, police use of driver’s license photos of U.S. citizens who are not under suspicion for any crime.

“As a society, do we want to have total surveillance? Do we want to give the government the ability to identify individuals wherever they are…without any immediate probable cause?” Laura Donohue, a Georgetown University law professor who has studied government facial databases, asked the newspaper. “A police state is exactly what this turns into if everybody who drives has to lodge their information with the police.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

State Photo-ID Databases Become Troves for Police (by Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post)

Some Thoughts on DMV Image Databases and the Police (by Jay Stanley, ACLU)

Why Facial Recognition Failed (by Andrew Leonard, Salon)

Police May Take DNA Sample without Warrant after Arrest, Supreme Court Rules in Unusual Split Decision (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

FBI Agrees to Share Facial Recognition Searches with All Police Departments (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)               

FBI Prepares Billion-Dollar Iris Recognition Database (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

4 States Ban Smiling from Driver License Photos (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)            


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