In 2014, it became public knowledge that the FBI has been building a database for photos of people’s faces to complement their facial recognition technology. But, as far as most people knew, all of the photos were of convicted criminals. Officially, the FBI’s database consisted of about 30 million photos, with about 70 percent taken from mug shots and the other 30 percent from civil photos, such as driver licenses.
But the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a government watchdog, has released a new report on Wednesday that shows that the FBI has been withholding some information.
According to Vocativ's review of the report, at least 186 million driver license photos (the actual number may be far higher) are at the disposal of the FBI due to their partnership with the Division of Motor Vehicles. The FBI allegedly has the ability to use all of the driver license photos found in their database, not just of convicted or suspected criminals. Currently, the FBI can draw from the DMV database in 16 states, although they currently are in talks with 18 more states.
The FBI was allegedly able to claim the number of photos at their disposal is so different from the actual number because the photos are stored on the DMV’s database and can be swept under the carpet as “external databases”.
But if you are worried that the only photo the government has of you is your dorky looking driver's license photo from 15 years ago, you're wrong. CNN also says that the FBI also has access to millions of photos of faces drawn from the State Department's passport and visa applications.
The estimated total number of photos at the FBI’s disposal is over 411 million, over 13 times more than their original number.
Further, the GAO claims it is not just the FBI that allegedly has access to this system. It is common practice for officers to provide photos of suspects to the FBI to see if their database can turn anything up.
Needless to say, there are some concerns about the database. Last month, the FBI allegedly asked that its database be exempted from some party of the Privacy Act, the law that rules on what personally identifiable information that government can take from you and in what circumstances, and the FBI has not filed the required privacy reports while creating the database. Further, the accuracy of the “external databases” may not be as precise as the FBI hopes. Mistakes in the system could very possibly lead to false arrests.
The FBI has not denied the claims. The FBI also implied, pointing the Department of Justice’s partial agreement and partial rejection of the GAO’s report, that they have not violated any constitutional rights in the building of the database.