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ACLU Calls For Halt To Vermont DMV's Facial Recognition Program

Vermont's Department of Motor Vehicles was breaking Vermont law when it searched its records using facial recognition software, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan says.
Taylor Dobbs
VPR File
The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles uses its database of 2.6 million photos to help law enforcement agencies by using facial recognition software. The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has called for a halt to the practice.

The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has launched a legal review of its facial recognition program after the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called for an immediate halt to the program, Commissioner Robert Ide said Wednesday.

The ACLU sent Ide an 11-page letter Tuesday outlining civil liberties concerns related to the program, which uses facial recognition technology to scan the DMV’s database of 2.6 million images of more than 700,000 unique individuals.

Jay Diaz, a staff attorney for the Vermont ACLU, says the program is a violation of a Vermont law passed in 2004 that prohibits “any procedures or processes for identifying applicants for licenses, learner permits, or nondriver identification cards that involve the use of biometric identifiers.”

Diaz says the system leads to the DMV sharing Vermonters’ personal information with other agencies, even when they aren’t suspected of a crime, “and basically puts everyone into a criminal lineup.”

According to Diaz, that means “there have been potentially thousands of Vermonters who have had their information sent to outside agencies.”

DMV Commissioner Robert Ide said Wednesday that the department launched an internal legal review of the facial recognition program after receiving the ACLU’s letter on Tuesday. He said the agency’s official response will take time.

“It’s a very well-researched letter, and we think it deserves serious research from a different vantage point,” Ide said of the ACLU letter.

"It's a very well-researched letter, and we think it deserves serious research from a different vantage point." - DMV Commissioner Robert Ide

Ide said he was aware of the 2004 law that prohibits the use of biometrics, but he says that only bars the DMV from using biometrics on applicants, and the way the Vermont DMV operates, no one who has their photo taken is an applicant.

“When they walk in, they’re an applicant, but they cease to be an applicant when they qualify to receive the document,” Ide said.

By that interpretation, Ide said he believes the program is legal.

The DMV began its facial recognition program in an effort to prevent fraud, and Ide says new photos taken at the DMV are checked against the existing collection of photos to ensure no one person is getting official photo identification under a false name.

“The day after a person successfully receives our document, we scan our database to be sure that that image has never presented itself under a different identification name,” Ide said.

After that, Ide said, those photos aren’t used by the DMV again unless they are similar enough to a photo of a criminal suspect that’s checked against the system. Ide said law enforcement officers have to fill out a comprehensive form before the DMV will search its database for a suspect, and the DMV will only provide information from the database as part of an investigation.

Diaz said that in practice, the DMV has searched its system in response to requests as ambiguous as “suspicious circumstances.”

There’s also a racial component of ACLU’s concerns.

According to a news release from ACLU, “DMV’s records indicate that since 2012, searches for African-Americans occurred seven times more frequently, and searches for Hispanics were nearly 12 times more frequent, relative to those groups’ respective share of Vermont’s driving population.”

"We're currently looking at all options. Everything's on the table. We're going to do whatever we can and whatever we have to to get DMV to act within the law." - Jay Diaz, ACLU

Ide said the DMV facial recognition program will continue during the department’s legal review, but Diaz said the ACLU is set on bringing it to an end.

“We’re currently looking at all options. Everything’s on the table. We’re going to do whatever we can and whatever we have to to get DMV to act within the law,” Diaz said.

Those options could include taking the DMV to court, but Diaz said the Legislature also has the power to make changes that would satisfy the ACLU’s concerns.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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