Arizona’s Use of Database of Driver’s License Photos Prompts Questions

November 28, 2017

Arizona routinely uses facial-recognition software to scan photos of driver’s license applicants to detect identity fraud. The technology is also for other law enforcement purposes, but that is not explicitly disclosed to applicants – a practice that raises eyebrows among some privacy advocates and experts.

The state Department of Transportation scans photos of license applicants and compares them against photos in its database, and the department says it has taken more than 100 cases to court for fraud since it began using the technology in early 2015.

“This high-tech tool has really enhanced our ability to catch identity thieves,” said Michael Lockhart, chief of the department’s Office of Inspector General.

A broader use of the technology allows law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the state Department of Public Safety to get ADOT to check its database for photos of crime suspects.

The Arizona Capitol Times reports that an audit log obtained through a public records request showed 90 searches for law enforcement agencies over the past six months, with most producing potential hits and 20 finding no matches.

ADOT spokesman Ryan Harding said the requests are reviewed and rejected if they “aren’t connected with a police investigation, court order or court proceeding,” but Harding couldn’t provide any examples of rejected requests.

The fact that license applicants aren’t given explicit notice that their photos could be scanned for law enforcement purposes is troubling to some.

“If you don’t know that a system is in place, you actually don’t have the choice of consenting to it or not,” said Clare Garvie, a Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology fellow.

Garvie authored a study, “Perpetual Line-Up,” on how law enforcement uses state-run facial recognition databases, and how little oversight there is on the government’s use of such technology.

ADOT officials say they believe people should welcome the searches. They also think most know about the technology and its full usage despite the lack of disclosure.

“We’ve never had anybody that has asked us or been concerned about it,” Lockhart said. “Frankly, if you look at the whole concept of a driver’s license or an ID, you willingly go get those. It isn’t like you’re thinking this is all going to be private.”

It’s unlikely that people would opt out of getting a license because of facial-recognition technology but informed consent is a basic tenet of privacy, said Jim Dempsey, the executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology.

“It’s an important element. The lack of it is an issue, but it’s one that should be corrected and would be easy to correct,” he said.

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