Face off: ACLU demands Vermont DMV suspend facial recognition program

Face off: ACLU demands Vermont DMV suspend facial recognition program
The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has been running a facial recognition program to conduct illegal identity searches and sharing its findings with federal agencies and law enforcement, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The documents show that since 2012, the department has run 126 FRS searchers on requests from the FBI, ICE, the US State Department and state and local police departments from around the country. It also “secretly shared the photos and associated information of potentially thousands of Vermonters with those agencies.”

“The DMV’s use of facial-recognition software is illegal,” ACLU's Vermont staff attorney, Jay Diaz said in an interview. “They’re violating the public trust by not telling people up front that in order to get a driver’s license, you’ve got to give up your privacy.”

The ACLU is calling for the suspension of the program, saying the practice violates a 2004 state law barring the use of technologies that “involve the use of biometric identifiers.”

DMV Commissioner, Robert Ide told Seven Days he was unaware of the law.

The ACLU said the DMV searched for African-Americans seven times more frequently and searches for Latinos were nearly twelve times more frequent relative to those groups’ respective account of Vermont’s driving population.

The records showed the FRS program sweeps up innocent people. When the agency receives a request it scans the database for matches which provides ID photos of up to fifty Vermonters at a time – most if not all of them innocent of any wrongdoing.

The department has amassed a database of 2.7 million images of people who applied for a driver’s license or another form of ID.

The ACLU obtained the DMV documents through a public records request submitted in 2016 after a Georgetown University report on police facial recognition revealed that Vermont was sharing images with the FBI. The documents show that the collaboration with law enforcement is more extensive.

Diaz said Vermonters give up the equivalent of a fingerprint in exchange for the ability to drive and their personal information is disseminated “without any meaningful oversight or limitations in place.”

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The software was originally acquired and justified as necessary for preventing identity theft and fraud. In 2013, DMV’s director of enforcement wrote that after six months of the FRS operation, twenty-six application were referred for fraud investigations but only one-third were exonerated.

The ACLU found, that from its inception, the DMV has been using the program to conduct searches for people alleged to be involved in “suspicious circumstances.” Other searches were for minor offenses such as trespassing or disorderly conduct while others failed to reference any criminal conduct.

In a letter sent Tuesday, ACLU Vermont demanded the DMV Commissioner Robert Ide, end the program first implemented in 2012.

The ACLU added in its letter that FRS is a notoriously inaccurate technology. It works by examining facial features such as the position of the eyes, the shape of cheekbones and size of the jaw.

A 2012 study showed the FBI’s facial recognition software has a 14 percent error rating and a 5-10 chance in searches for African American, women and adults 18-30 years old.

They also cited an Associated Press review that showed hundreds of police officers across the country have been disciplined for accessing government database systems for improper reasons, including personal grievances.

Commissioner Ide said the DMV has a tight protocol for access: A cop has to document a case on a form, DMV staff screen the request and then forwards info about any matches.

“It is a highly controlled atmosphere,” Ide told Seven Days. “The process to document a request and to check the request and to do the actual run does not happen quickly.”

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The Washington Post found that 37 states now use facial-recognition technology in their driver’s-license registries. In all but three, lawmakers never voted to approve them. Twenty-six of them allow state, local or federal law enforcement agencies to search, or request searches, to learn the identities of people considered relevant to investigations. The programs were made possible with federal grant money. Vermont’s cost $900,000.

A few states, like Vermont, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota, have legal barriers to police accessing facial-recognition technology in driver’s-license registries. New Hampshire’s legislature passed a law prohibiting motor vehicle officials from collecting any biometric data.