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ICE used Washington drivers licenses to hunt immigrants, researchers say

caption: A sample drivers license from a Washington state YouTube video.
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A sample drivers license from a Washington state YouTube video.

Federal agents could use facial-recognition technology to find undocumented immigrants through Washington state’s driver license system, university researchers say.

But the state Department of Licensing said Monday that it doesn’t cooperate with any immigration-related requests from federal agencies.

The research by Georgetown Law's Center for Privacy and Technology was first reported by the Washington Post.

Alvaro Deboya with the center said Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI are employing facial recognition to search license databases as states across the nation are urging undocumented people to come out of the shadows and get a drivers license.

“In at least three of them, in Washington, Utah and Vermont, ICE is actually taking advantage of that to secretly find and deport those people using face recognition technology,” Deboya told NPR's Morning Edition.

The state Department of Licensing did not return phone calls asking for comment Monday morning.

But in an interview with KUOW on Monday afternoon, spokesperson Gigi Zenk said the department would not look at a federal request for a facial recognition search of its databases without a court order.

Even then, she said, “if we have found that it is related to immigration, we would not release information.”

And in a statement, the department said law enforcement agencies can't use the state's facial recognition system themselves to mine driver’s license databases.

The department said that law enforcement must have a court order for a search and that searches using facial recognition are performed by department staff.

"If a match was found through any request during this time, DOL would provide limited identity information," the statement said.

Director Teresa Berntsen said her agency "has implemented strict standards to ensure data is not released to any law enforcement entity for immigration purposes or without a judicial court order or subpoena.

"There is no external access to the Facial Recognition System. System access is limited to very few specially trained DOL staff. We take very seriously our responsibility to protect the data and information of all Washingtonians.”

The department said it had received 13 federal requests through court order since 2013. It said four of those were from the Department of Homeland Security/Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. But none of the requests has come since 2017.

In January 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the Department of Licensing to release information to ICE only under court order.

The researchers said they discovered the federal agents’ action through Freedom of Information Act requests of police departments and departments of licensing. Their research covered the years 2014 to 2017.

The Post said an ICE spokesman wouldn’t answer questions about facial-recognition searches.

The paper reported that federal agents are using motor vehicle databases as what it called “the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.”

The newspaper said such a system hasn’t been authorized by Congress or state legislatures.

Federal officials were expected to testify about the use of facial recognition technology at a House hearing on Wednesday.

Why you can trust KUOW