Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded hesitant last month before signing a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, citing concerns that federal immigration agents could use the state’s database to target immigrants for deportation. His critics on the left speculated the governor was trying to kill the bill at the last minute, but a Washington Post report last weekend vindicated the governor’s concerns by revealing that federal agencies have equipped facial-recognition software by infiltrating state motor vehicle databases to obtain mugshots — including those of citizens who’ve never been charged with a crime.
The Washington Post notes that such surveillance was never authorized by state or federal governments, and this obvious Orwellian overreach has drawn bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill.
“No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver’s license, got their driver’s licenses,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, during a House Oversight Committee hearing in June. “They didn’t sign any waiver saying, ‘Oh, it’s OK to turn my information, my photo, over to the FBI.’ No elected officials voted for that to happen.”
A report from the Government Accountability Office last month says that since 2011, the FBI has tapped state and local databases for 390,000 mugshot searches, and has access to more than 640 million mugshots. The Associated Press reports that many states have blocked media requests for data regarding the searches, with only Utah, Vermont and Washington providing information.
Legal experts have echoed Cuomo’s concerns about the possibility of the so-called “Green Light” bill doing more harm for immigrants than good. Alvaro Bedoya, director of the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, which obtained the records revealing the database searches, told The Associated Press: “States asked undocumented people to come out of the shadows to get licenses. Then (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) turns around and uses that to find them.”
If you aren’t concerned by the fate of immigrants, consider how such data could be misused by a federal government with different priorities. Recall the backlash by the National Rifle Association and its members against proposals for a national handgun registry during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Secret federal facial-recognition databases could yield similar results without any debate or oversight from statehouses or Capitol Hill. There’s also the possibility of rogue federal agents misusing such data for personal vendettas with impunity.
Despite these concerns, Cuomo’s liberal critics who apparently won’t take “yes” for an answer seem detached from reality in scoffing at the governor’s caution.
“We hope the governor will stop the charade of scaring hardworking immigrants into staying in the shadows by continuing to evoke the ICE boogeyman,” said Stephen Choi of the New York Immigrant Coalition. Choi’s group says the “Green Light” bill prohibits the federal government from accessing New York’s database. But President Donald Trump’s administration has shown a willingness to use strong-arm tactics and withhold federal funding as a means of enforcing its strict anti-immigrant agenda.
And given the extent to which this technology is already being used, it’s not just immigrants and their advocates who should be concerned. Anyone who values privacy should be urging lawmakers to restrict its use, or at the very least exercise proper oversight.
“It’s really a surveillance-first, ask-permission-later system,” said Jake Laperruque, of the Project on Government Oversight watchdog group, in an interview with the Washington Post. “People think this is something coming way off in the future, but these (facial-recognition) searches are happening very frequently today.”