On July 7, the Washington Post broke what quickly became a bombshell story. Over at least the past five years, federal law enforcement personnel from both the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “have turned state driver’s license databases into a facial-recognition gold mine” and even “the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.”
The Post expressed horror at the notion that federal law enforcement agencies would use state driver’s license databases. DMV records, according to the Post, are different from “fingerprints, DNA and other “biometric data” taken from criminal suspects” because most drivers have never been charged with a crime. They further noted that “[n]either Congress nor state legislatures have authorized the development of such a system.”
It may come as something of a surprise to the Post that: 1) driving is a privilege, not a right, and 2) Congress actually has created exactly such a “system” in the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (“DPPA”) of 1994, which specifically authorizes disclosure of driver’s license information “[f]or use by any government agency, including any court or law enforcement agency, in carrying out its functions[.]” The DPPA even survived a constitutional challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, the story was like a dam breaking as it unleashed significant backlash against using the information contained in the driver’s license databases. Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that law enforcement searches of driving records were “often done in the shadows with no consent[.]” Not to be rhetorically outdone, of course, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) decried the searches as part of a sinister “global rise in authoritarianism and fascism[.]”
In New York, the director of the New York Immigrant Coalition condemned Governor Andrew Cuomo for “scaring hardworking immigrants into staying in the shadows by continuing to evoke the ICE boogeyman,” despite the governor being the one to have recently signed New York’s “Green Light Law” authorizing drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens.
In response, ICE noted that, “[d]uring the course of an investigation, it has the ability to collaborate with external local, federal and international agencies to obtain information that may assist in case completion and prosecution efforts. This is an established procedure that is consistent with other law-enforcement agencies.”
The FBI added that “the technology was key to ‘to preserve our nation’s freedoms, ensure our liberties are protected, and preserve our security.’”
There are many reasons to be hopeful about this new development. First, it may bring the ongoing push that has led to 13 states granting drivers to illegal aliens to a grinding halt, and maybe even encourage states that have granted licenses to illegal aliens to reconsider their decision. Second, if ICE and other federal law enforcement are going to be condemned anyway for even seeking this evidence, then they might as well get it and use it.