Georgia driver's license office is sharing information with ICE, records show

Georgia’s Department of Driver’s Services has shared information with immigration authorities, including facial recognition searches.
Image: People are helped at the Driver License Division in Orem, Utah, on July 9, 2019. The FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have made thousands of searches using Department of Motor Vehicle databases in states like Utah, Vermont and Washington
People are helped at the Driver License Division in Orem, Utah, on July 9, 2019. The FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have made thousands of searches using Department of Motor Vehicle databases in states such as Utah, Vermont and Washington.George Frey / Getty Images file

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By Daniella Silva

Georgia’s Department of Driver’s Services has shared information, including facial recognition searches, about the state’s residents with immigration authorities, according to data from an open records request.

Between September 2017 and last June, the department processed more than 250 requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies “to gather and share information on hundreds of immigrants living in Georgia,” advocacy groups said Wednesday.

The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Project South and Innovation Law Lab said based on the data they received it appeared the department fulfilled ICE’s requests “without any supporting evidence for the request.”

“I think this is alarming that the Department of Driver’s Services does not even require any type of proof, any type of administrative warrant, any type of judicial warrant or detainer before handing over significant information like where people live and license pictures,” Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney of Project South, said.

“It’s also alarming that Georgia law is so broad in allowing this to happen,” Bhatt said. “Law enforcement or ICE doesn’t even need to have an actual valid reason to obtain this information, they need an alleged belief that there might be unlawful activity happening and that is such a horribly low bar.”

ICE has been sued over allegations it has not turned over records on data collection, including facial recognition searches, and the agency said it cannot comment on pending litigation.

But the agency said it "does not routinely uses facial recognition technology for civil immigration enforcement."

"ICE’s use of facial recognition technology is primarily used by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents investigating child exploitation, human trafficking and other cases that HSI special agents investigate," the agency said. "HSI’s work to combat online child sexual exploitation and human trafficking has been widely recognized by law enforcement agencies around the world, and facial recognition technology is critical to identifying the perpetrators of these crimes.”

Georgia’s Department of Driver’s Services said they provide data to law enforcement in response to specific requests related to law enforcement matters but said ICE has not requested, nor has DDS provided, access to the Georgia driver’s license data base.

Vân Huynh, community counsel for GLAHR, said the type of information the department was sharing with ICE included where people lived, information on their driver’s licenses, their photos, vehicle information and documents submitted when they applied for the licenses.

The group also found three requests to run information through facial recognition software.

They wrote in a statement that in one case, an officer sent multiple photos found on a person’s Facebook page to the department. The agency then runs those images through its facial recognition software.

Huynh said beyond the privacy concerns, facial recognition software was not always accurate, especially when it comes to people of color, and that could lead to false positives.

There were also incidents where ICE was wrong in whom it detained or had improperly detained U.S. citizens, she said.

"The chances of ICE being wrong and searching people's information, people who are U.S. citizens, I think is also a huge possibility with their access to this information," Huynh said.

Georgia does not provide licenses to undocumented immigrants, but the searches would largely apply to citizens and those with some form of legal status as well as DACA recipients and people applying for relief in immigration proceedings, Huynh said.

Ariel Prado, the Defend Asylum program director at Innovation Law Lab, said there were also many stories of immigrants being detained for things like having a much older DUI on their record and despite having a clean record since then.

Georgia is the latest state to be revealed to be sharing information with immigration authorities after previous record requests have shown several other driver’s license agencies working with ICE.

Last month, The Washington Post reported that ICE had been allowed to run facial-recognition searches on millions of driver’s licenses in Maryland without first seeking state approval in a state that grants special driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

A top Maryland official had told state lawmakers in November that ICE logged nearly 100 sessions in the state’s database since 2018, according to an unpublicized letter obtained by the newspaper.

In July, public records requests showed ICE had requested data in at least three states that also offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, in Utah, Vermont and Washington. Utah and Vermont complied with those requests and it was unclear if Washington went through with the search requests.

“There’s been a lot more outrage from legislators and officials about how broad ICE is using tapping into the databases without the knowledge of the general public, without any restriction,” Huynh said.

Prado said with some states discussing expanding driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, there should be “reform efforts to ensure people’s privacies are protected.”

“This is something we would want folks to be aware of," he said.