RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week we learned that ICE has searched millions of American driver's license photos, using facial recognition tools; the aim - to look for immigrants who are in this country illegally. Now privacy rights supporters and immigration advocates are calling for more transparency and oversight. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, some version of all this has happened once before.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Dozens of protesters gathered in Manhattan yesterday outside the office of a tech company that's growing but still unknown to many Americans.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: You hear that, Palantir? Drop the ICE contract.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Drop the ICE contract. Drop the ICE contract.
ROSE: Palantir is a data analytics company, and the protesters are furious about the work it does to help U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement locate undocumented immigrants. The protest was organized by the activist group, Mijente, which has been raising concerns about how ICE uses data mining technologies.
PRISCILLA GONZALEZ: It's frightening. It's alarming. It's infuriating.
ROSE: Priscilla Gonzalez is Mijente's campaign director. She's particularly troubled by the latest revelation - that ICE has been using facial recognition technology to scour state driver's license databases.
GONZALEZ: There's few guidelines to regulate what technologies are being used and how. And then the fact that these things are happening without us knowing about it, is the thing that's really scary.
ROSE: The Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, is trying out all sorts of new technology. It's rolling out biometric scanners at more than a dozen major airports, snapping photos of travelers who cross the border and storing social media posts from international visitors. Some of these initiatives have been announced publicly, and some have been kept quiet; all of them are raising big concerns for privacy advocates who want more transparency about what's happening and more oversight.
SARAH ST VINCENT: There's a tendency to think of new technologies as magic and to overlook their faults, and I think the government is just as prone to that kind of thinking as the rest of us.
ROSE: Sarah St. Vincent is a researcher at Human Rights Watch. She points to facial recognition technology - it's good at recognizing white men; not so good at everyone else.
ST VINCENT: Several systems have been shown by researchers to have accuracy problems particularly for people of color and particularly for women of color. And so one of my concerns is, are we going to see people being investigated or detained based on inaccurate information?
ROSE: There are also concerns about how the government is protecting the data it collects. Just last month, we learned that cameras captured images of travelers and their license plates as they crossed the border when a government contractor was hacked and tens of thousands of those images were compromised. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan tried to downplay the incident when he testified before Congress last month.
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KEVIN MCALEENAN: We're talking about a few lanes at a single port of entry, a test for about a month and a half - that's the source of the data. So this is not a widespread issue.
ROSE: Immigration officials say they're trying to enforce the law, but they don't want to discuss what technology they use to do it. A spokesman for ICE says he can't comment on investigative tactics or tools. He also says what ICE does is consistent with what other law enforcement agencies do. But Alvaro Bedoya says ICE is abusing its power.
ALVARO BEDOYA: This is a dragnet. This is not a targeted search. It is a dragnet that folds in (ph) every single driver in the state.
ROSE: Bedoya is the founder of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, which uncovered documents showing that ICE has asked states to perform facial recognition searches of DMV records. Bedoya says this violates the privacy of every driver in the state and betrays the trust of undocumented immigrants who signed up for driver's licenses in good faith. He says DMVs shouldn't perform these searches without a warrant or a subpoena.
BEDOYA: It is not a court order. This is just ICE saying, hey, we're ICE. We have a lot of power, and we're using that power to ask you to run this face recognition search.
ROSE: At least two state DMVs, Utah and Vermont, complied with ICE requests. But Vermont's attorney general pushed back. T.J. Donovan told Vermont Public Radio that he ordered state officials to stop performing these searches in 2017.
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T J DONOVAN: We have to make sure that we do not become de facto immigration officers here in the state of Vermont. That's not our role. That's not our job. We shouldn't be doing it.
ROSE: Immigrant advocates and privacy hawks hope the outcry over facial recognition software will lead to more oversight of how government agencies are using these technologies. So far, members of Congress from both parties have expressed concern but haven't taken any action. Another hearing is set for tomorrow.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.
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