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Is ICE using facial recognition to comb Washington drivers' licenses?

Investigative reports revealed ICE has been asking for access to license databases, but Washington says it has not granted that access.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Investigative reports from the Washington Post and The New York Times revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has regularly requested access to states' databases of drivers' license photos for years in order to run facial recognition software on them.

ICE would not tell the outlets what those searches were used for if access was granted.

The reports, citing public records obtained by Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, specifically revealed that requests for access were made to licensing departments in Vermont, Utah and Washington.

But the reports also acknowledged there was no evidence that the requests were granted in Washington.

Now the state Department of Licensing is specifically stating that it did not give ICE access to its facial recognition database.

In fact, the DOL said in an extensive statement that no outside agency is ever given access to that system and only a handful of specially trained department staffers are allowed to use it.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee reaffirmed that sentiment in a tweet sent Tuesday.

Not granting access to the database, however, does not mean DOL outright ignored ICE's requests.

Instead, it undergoes a process to determine the purpose of the request and, depending on that purpose, will hand over specific "limited identify information," according to the department.

That process begins, as of 2018, with verifying that the agency has a court order. 

Although the DOL says it has not received any requests since 2017,  it received 13 federal requests between 2013 and 2017. Four of the requests were from the Department of Homeland Security, the cabinet-level department of which ICE is a part.

The second thing DOL checks for is the purpose of the inquiry, namely to make sure ICE is seeking someone for a specific crime. Furthermore, that crime cannot be solely an immigration violation.

In fact, the DOL says it undergoes a rigorous process to make sure the request is not immigration-related, which a staffer, manager and someone from the governor's office all verify.

If the they determine the request is immigration-related, they reject it.

If it is not, they go forward with the search, scanning the photo provided by the outside agency against their database.

If there's a match, they'll provide the agency with that "limited identify information," which the DOL says includes first, middle and last name, date of birth, and license number.

The DOL says it redacts the following information: Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, birth place, twin/triplet indicator, voter indicator, testing information, identity documents, previous license information, and parental ID document. 

As of early 2018, some of that information is not even collected by DOL, after an investigation by The Seattle Times revealed the agency had been frequently sharing such data with ICE, leading to arrests. That report prompted Gov. Inslee to order the practice stopped, and new measures such as requiring court orders for information-sharing and no longer collecting birthplace were enacted.

The question of DOL information-sharing is especially important in Washington, one of a dozen states that allow people in the country illegally to nonetheless obtain drivers' licenses.

Washington was the first state to institute that practice more than 20 years ago on the basis that more widespread licensing would improve public safety.

If it were to allow ICE to access its license database for facial recognition, that would certainly raise questions of trust with immigrants who provided the state with their information in order to get license, and potentially undermine the program if that trust was broken.

But the DOL and governor attempted to assure Washingtonians their trust has not been breached, with Inslee tweeting, "We take seriously the responsibility to be as protective as possible of every Washingtonian’s data. Our state agencies are not immigration agencies and we will not allow agencies like ICE to unlawfully use our resources."

Senator Patty Murray also responded on Tuesday, providing a statement reading: 

“I’m deeply concerned by reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been mining photos and other personal information from state databases without individuals’ consent or valid judicial orders, and I am even more alarmed by their use of facial recognition technology with little apparent consideration for our privacy or the concerns of historically-overlooked communities.

While I’m glad leaders in Washington state have taken steps to protect the civil rights and liberties of our residents against these intrusive tactics, we need much more public oversight of how our state databases are being used—by whom, and for what purposes. While ensuring the safety and security of our families and communities is paramount, we must do so in a way that honors our commitment to the values of liberty and justice that are the bedrock of our democracy.”

Her office has not yet responded to KREM's questions about how such oversight might be instituted.

RELATED: ICE used facial recognition to search state driver's license databases, records show