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6/18/2013
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FBI Driver's License Photo Searches Raise Privacy Questions

Facial-recognition software advances allow law enforcement and government agencies to match images of unknown suspects with government-issued ID photos.

The FACE unit, which has been operating since 2011, "accepts unclassified photographs of subjects of FBI investigations (probe photos) and uses facial recognition technology to compare those photos against FBI database, other federal photo databases to which the FBI legally has access, and photo repositories from states that have entered into agreements with the FBI to share data," according to a related FBI privacy threshold analysis report, which was obtained by EPIC.

"After comparison and evaluation, the FACE services unit returns to the FBI case agent or analyst candidate photos that are likely matches to the probe photo, with the caveat that the candidate photos may serve only as investigative leads and do not constitute positive identification," according to the privacy threshold analysis.

Beyond the FBI, many state and local law enforcement agencies have long been allowed to access driver's license information for suspects who have been identified during the course of an investigation. For states that allow police to access facial-recognition search software for driver's license photos, some limit searches to only certain types of trained investigators, while others allow searches to be conducted only from headquarters.

But using facial-recognition software now provides police with the potential to take a photograph of an unknown suspect or "person of interest" and work backwards until they can positively identify the subject. In a case cited by the Post, for example, during the course of a homicide investigation, a tipster pointed Las Vegas police to a photograph of an unidentified woman and said she had lived in Nebraska. Taking the image and using facial-recognition software to compare it with Nebraska driver's license photographs produced a hit, which lead to investigators cracking the case.

"That picture hung on our wall for a long time," Betty Johnson, Nebraska's vehicle services administrator, told the Post. "We are pretty darn proud of that one."

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