The faces of more than 120 million people are in searchable photo databases that state officials assembled to prevent driver’s-license fraud but that increasingly are used by police to identify suspects, accomplices and even innocent bystanders in a wide range of criminal investigations.
The facial databases have grown rapidly in recent years and generally operate with few legal safeguards beyond the requirement that searches are conducted for “law enforcement purposes.” Amid rising concern about the National Security Agency’s high-tech surveillance aimed at foreigners, it is these state-level facial-recognition programs that more typically involve American citizens.
The most widely used systems were honed on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq as soldiers sought to identify insurgents. The increasingly widespread deployment of the technology in the United States has helped police find murderers, bank robbers and drug dealers, many of whom leave behind images on surveillance videos or social-media sites that can be compared against official photo databases.
But law enforcement use of such facial searches is blurring the traditional boundaries between criminal and non-criminal databases, putting images of people never arrested in what amount to perpetual digital lineups. The most advanced systems allow police to run searches from laptop computers in their patrol cars and offer access to the FBI and other federal authorities.
Such open access has caused a backlash in some of the few states where there has been a public debate. As the databases grow larger and increasingly connected across jurisdictional boundaries, critics warn that authorities are developing what amounts to a national identification system — based on the distinct geography of each human face.
“Where is government going to go with that years from now?” said Louisiana state Rep. Brett Geymann, a conservative Republican who has fought the creation of such systems there. “Here your driver’s license essentially becomes a national ID card.”
Facial-recognition technology is part of a new generation of biometric tools that once were the stuff of science fiction but are increasingly used by authorities around the nation and the world. Though not yet as reliable as fingerprints, these technologies can help determine identity through individual variations in irises, skin textures, vein patterns, palm prints and a person’s gait while walking.
The Supreme Court’s approval this month of DNA collection during arrests coincides with rising use of that technology as well, with suspects in some cases submitting to tests that put their genetic details in official databases, even if they are never convicted of a crime.
Facial-recognition systems are more pervasive and can be deployed remotely, without subjects knowing that their faces have been captured. Today’s driver’s-license databases, which also include millions of images of people who get non-driver ID cards to open bank accounts or board airplanes, typically were made available for police searches with little public notice.
Thirty-seven states now use facial-recognition technology in their driver’s-license registries, a Washington Post review found. At least 26 of those, including Florida, allow state, local or federal law enforcement agencies to search — or request searches — of photo databases in an attempt to learn the identities of people considered relevant to investigations.
“This is a tool to benefit law enforcement, not to violate your privacy rights,” said Scott McCallum, head of the facial-recognition unit in Pinellas County, Fla., which has built one of the nation’s most advanced systems.
The technology produces investigative leads, not definitive identifications. But research efforts are focused on pushing the software to the point where it can reliably produce the names of people in the time it takes them to walk by a video camera. This already works in controlled, well-lit settings when the database of potential matches is relatively small. Most experts expect those limitations to be surmounted over the next few years.
That prospect has sparked fears that the databases authorities are building could someday be used for monitoring political rallies, sporting events or even busy downtown areas. Whatever the security benefits — especially at a time when terrorism remains a serious threat — the mass accumulation of location data on individuals could chill free speech or the right to assemble, civil libertarians say.
“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?” asked Laura Donohue, a Georgetown University law professor who has studied government facial databases. “A police state is exactly what this turns into if everybody who drives has to lodge their information with the police.”
Facial-recognition systems analyze a person’s features — such as the shape of eyes, the curl of earlobes, the width of noses — to produce a digital “template” that can be quickly compared with other faces in a database.
The images must be reasonably clear, though newer software allows technicians to sharpen blurry images, bolster faint lighting or make a three-dimensional model of a face that can be rotated to ease comparisons against pictures taken from odd angles.
For the state officials issuing driver’s licenses, the technology has been effective at detecting fraud. As millions of images are compared, the software typically reveals the identities of hundreds or thousands of people who may have more than one driver’s license.
When searches are made for criminal investigations, typically a photo called a “probe” is compared against existing images in a database. The analytical software returns a selection of potential matches, though their accuracy can vary dramatically. A probe image of a middle-aged white man, for example, could produce a possible match with a 20-something African American woman with similarly shaped eyes and lips. Many systems include filters that allow searchers to specify race, sex and a range of possible ages for a suspect.
“It’s a fine line where you need to protect the rights of the citizens, but you also are protecting the right of citizens when you ferret out crime,” said Anthony J. Silva, administrator of Rhode Island’s Division of Motor Vehicles and a former town police chief.
Establishing identity, Silva said, is essential to effective police work: “I can’t tell you how many times I was handed fraudulent documents. And when you are on the street at 3 a.m., who do you call?”
Pennsylvania’s Justice Network, which has allowed police anywhere in the state to compare a facial image with mug-shot databases, has become a key investigative tool, officials said, and last month it added access to 34 million driver’s-license photos. (Some residents have several images, taken over years.)
A detective in Carlisle, Pa., attempting to learn the real name of a suspect known on the street as “Buddha the Shoota” compared a Facebook page picturing the man with the mug-shot database and got a promising lead.
“Facebook is a great source for us,” said Detective Daniel Freedman, who can do facial searches from his department-issued smartphone. “He was surprised when we walked in and said, ‘How you doin’, Buddha?’ ”
He said the suspect responded, “How you know that?” — to which Freedman replied simply, “We’re the police.”
SAFEGUARDS AND TRENDSThere typically is little concern when facial-recognition systems relying on criminal databases help identify suspects in narrowly targeted investigations. But searches against images of citizens from driver’s licenses or passports, as opposed to mug shots of prisoners, raise more complex legal questions.
Police typically need only to assert a law enforcement purpose for facial searches, whether they be of suspects or potential witnesses to crimes. Civil libertarians worry that this can lead to broadly defined identity sweeps. Already many common but technically illegal activities — blocking a sidewalk, cycling at night without a light or walking a dog without a leash — can trigger police stops and requests for identification, they say.
“The potential for abuse of this technology is such that we have to make sure we put in place the right safeguards to prevent misuse,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said in a statement. “We also need to make sure the government is as transparent as possible in order to give the American people confidence it’s using this technology appropriately.”
A few states, including 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.
But the broader trend is toward more sophisticated databases with more expansive access. The current version of the Senate’s immigration bill would dramatically expand an electronic photo-verification system, probably relying on access to driver’s-license registries.
Montana has a facial-recognition system to help prevent fraud in its driver’s-license registry, but officials are still debating whether to allow police any kind of access.
“I can see it’s an amazingly powerful tool. It has a lot of possibilities,” said Brenda Nordlund, the administrator of the Motor Vehicle Division there. “I don’t know if that’s what citizens expect when they come in and get their driver’s-license pictures taken.”
There are substantial variations in how states allow police searches of their driver’s-license databases. Some allow only licensing-agency officials to conduct the actual searches. Others let police do searches themselves, but only from a headquarters office. And still others have made the technology available to almost any officer willing to get trained.
The District of Columbia has facial-recognition technology for its driver’s-license registry but does not permit law enforcement searches, spokeswoman Vanessa Newton said. Virginia motor vehicle officials have run a pilot program experimenting with facial-recognition technology but have not made a decision on whether police will have access to such a system if it is eventually installed, spokeswoman Sunni Brown said. Maryland does not use such technology in its driver’s-license registry.
Police long have had access to some driver’s-license information — including photographs — when they are investigating criminal suspects whose names they know. But facial-recognition technology has allowed police working from a photo of an unknown person to search for a name.
Las Vegas police, for example, called on authorities two states away in Nebraska for help solving a homicide. Based on a tip, investigators had a page from a social-media site featuring the image of an unknown suspect; the tipster said the woman in the photo had lived in Nebraska. The facial-recognition software produced a hit on a driver’s license there, cracking open the case.
“That picture hung on our wall for a long time,” said Betty Johnson, vehicle services administrator in Nebraska. “We are pretty darn proud of that one.”
WHO HAS THE DATABASES?A single private contractor, MorphoTrust USA, which is based in a suburban Boston office park but is owned by French industrial conglomerate Safran, dominates the field of government facial-recognition technology systems. Its software operates in systems for the State Department, the FBI and the Defense Department. Most facial-recognition systems installed in driver’s-license registries use the company’s technology, it says.
The largest facial database belongs to the State Department and includes about 230 million searchable images, split almost equally between foreigners who apply for visas and U.S. citizens who hold passports. Access for police investigations, though, is more limited than with state driver’s-license databases.