ATLANTA — You could be flagged as a potential suspect in a crime you had nothing to do with solely because you have a Georgia driver’s license.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation found law enforcement regularly asked Georgia’s Department of Driver Services to run pictures of crime suspects against photos of Georgia drivers, although the department had no written policies or rules on the searches.
Channel 2 Action News used Georgia’s Open Records Act to get copies of the requests law enforcement agencies sent to DDS. They received nearly 700 requests from an 18-month period. More than 120 local, state and federal agencies asked DDS to run facial recognition searches, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service.
“This gives law enforcement powers that they’ve never had before,” said Jameson Spivack, with the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. He said most Department of Motor Vehicles software is meant to flag ID fraud, not designed to spot criminals. He said photos that are poor quality or only show part of a face can return inaccurate matches.
“It’s not necessarily whether you have something to hide or not, or whether you’re a criminal. It’s whether you look like someone who does,” Spivack said.
Law enforcement requested searches by filling out a simple form or sending an email. One request from Dunwoody Police asked, “Can you guys try to work your magic?” Another from Gwinnet said, “I know this is a long shot…but I figured it was worth a shot.” Several requesters apologized about the poor quality of suspect photos.
Investigative reporter Justin Gray shared some of the requests with former defense attorney and Georgia State law professor Jessica Cino.
“That is the most informal law enforcement request I’ve ever heard,” Cino told Gray.
Cino said your driver’s license photo was never intended to be used like this, without any sort of warrant. Gray asked Cino to review the nearly decade old state law DDS said gives it the authority to do these searches.
“It’s certainly outside the scope of what the Georgia legislature authorized the Department of Motor Vehicles to do,” Cino said.
“Does the state have the legal authority to be doing this?” Gray asked.
“Based on the statute that they’re citing to, there’s really nothing in there that give them the expressed authority to do this,” Cino said.
A DDS spokesperson declined a request to interview Commissioner Spencer Moore for this story. When Channel 2 Action News filed more open records requests to learn about DDS policies and procedures for using facial recognition software the news organization was told there were none.
“It’s pretty much the Wild West,” Spivack said. Georgetown researchers have learned many states do not have much oversight for this type of technology.
Law enforcement did answer Channel 2’s questions about how they use the DDS searches. According to the Cobb Sheriff’s Office, DeKalb and Atlanta Police they used photos from social media app, even still images from surveillance video, to ask DDS to search for suspects.
Atlanta Police Sgt. John Chafee told Gray investigators view these requests as one of many tools in major cases.
“Some of our bigger cases where we’re a little more concerned with getting that person off the street,” Chafee said.
DDS and several law enforcement agencies could not provide Channel 2 Action News with examples of cases where facial recognition was a critical part of a criminal investigation. Turns out Atlanta has not found the searches to be much, if any help.
“How effective of a tool has this been?” Gray asked.
“From the feedback that I’ve gotten it hasn’t been something that’s extremely successful,” Chafee said.
Cino said the stakes are high in searches like these, especially since research showed facial recognition can be inaccurate when comparing faces of minorities.
“If someone is ensnared in an investigation like this simply because it was a bad photo it can take years to undo those consequences,” Cino said.
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