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DMV Facial Recognition System Deemed Illegal By Vermont Attorney General

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
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.

A facial recognition system in place at Vermont's Department of Motor Vehicle has been suspended indefinitely after a review by the state's Attorney General found that the system violates state law.

The finding by Attorney General TJ Donovan’s office confirms what the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in May when the group called for a stop to the program: A state law passed in 2004 explicitly prohibits the DMV from using biometrics.

“We concluded that the facial recognition program used by the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles is not fully compliant with Vermont law and should remain suspended until the Vermont legislature provides specific authorization for DMV to use biometrics,” Donovan said in an interview Tuesday.

Biometric technology interprets people’s bodies, such as fingerprint sensing or facial recognition. Privacy advocates like those at the ACLU have long voiced concerns that use of biometric data could have devastating implications for personal privacy. The ACLU also pointed out in its letter to DMV Commissioner Robert Ide that Vermont’s system has been used disproportionately to search for people of color.

Gov. Phil Scott ordered a suspension to the program in May after the ACLU’s letter. He said the suspension would continue until Donovan’s office completed its legal review. Ethan Latour, a spokesman for Scott, said in an email Tuesday that Scott plans to follow Donovan’s recommendation and keep the program suspended.

“[G]oing forward the Agency of Transportation and Dept. of Motor Vehicles hopes to collaborate with the AG, the legislature, and other stakeholders to seek clarification of the law or find some alternative for which there is consensus support,” Latour wrote.

Ide initially defended the program. He said in May that the DMV believed the program was legal because state law only prohibits the use of biometrics on “applicants” under state law. Since the DMV takes photos of people after approving a person’s application for a document, Ide said, the facial recognition program was legally in the clear.

Tuesday, Donovan said his office considered that argument but ultimately found that lawmakers clearly intended to ban the kinds of programs the DMV was operating, even if the system technically was not used on “applicants.”

“I think when you look at the statute as we did when you engage in this type of analysis, you also have to look at the legislative history,” Donovan said. “What was the intent of the legislature? And so we went back and actually listened to the testimony from 2004 … and it was very clear to us that the intent was not to use biometrics on licenses for Vermonters.”

Donovan said halting the program will not put any federal funding in jeopardy.

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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