STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How much power should the federal government have to sift through your personal information? That is one question raised by recently released government documents. The papers were obtained by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology. They reveal that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as well as the FBI, used facial recognition software on databases of driver's licenses from at least three states. Federal agents were looking for people who were in the U.S. illegally. Some states allow people without authorization to be here to obtain those licenses.
Before this specific revelation, our next guest was raising concerns about the power of facial recognition technology. Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio is the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, which has looked into it, and he's on the line.
Congressman, good morning.
JIM JORDAN: Good morning, Steve. Good to be with you.
INSKEEP: Does anything bother you about the federal government going through driver's license records for this purpose?
JORDAN: Heck, yeah. I mean, look. This happens - you know, when you use facial recognition, we learned in a committee hearing that it's wrong often. And it's wrong more often than not with people of darker skin. So it impacts African Americans in a negative way. You got First Amendment, Fourth Amendment concerns, due process concerns. And all this is happening in an environment, in a country, with 50 million surveillance cameras. So yeah, it's a concern, I think, for people on the left, people on the right - just anyone who cares about our civil liberties.
INSKEEP: It seems to me there are two layers of concern here. One is, you could say, that the government is doing this without permission, permission necessarily from a state legislature or from an individual. Or you could say it's just a bad idea. It sounds to me like you think that given the current technology, it's just a bad idea.
JORDAN: No, no. I think it's bad on both accounts. No - you tell me, where are the elected officials who OK'd this? The FBI has access to the driver's license database in 21 different states. And those 21 states represent over half the population in this country. Did any state legislatures vote on this? Did a governor sign a bill that said, OK, we're going to give access to a federal agency to our driver's - and our state is one of those states, state of Ohio. We're the seventh-largest state, 11 million people. My guess is there's, you know, eight, nine, 10 million people who drive in Ohio. And suddenly, the FBI and other federal agencies have access to that entire database?
INSKEEP: Is it your understanding in - is it your understanding in your state that the legislature did not vote on this but that someone on an administrative level, law enforcement to law enforcement, just gave over the information?
JORDAN: Almost every single state that has given the OK, it went through not a vote of the people. Or - excuse me. Not a vote of the legislature, people directly elected by we the people. Instead, it was some bureaucrat in the governor's office or in some federal - or, excuse me - some state agency who signed some agreement with some bureaucrat in a federal agency, and now they have this understanding that they can access the data. That is not supposed to be how it works in this country.
So you have that fundamental concern coupled with the fundamental First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, due process concerns that I think we all share. And then you have added to that the idea that this thing is wrong, and it's more wrong, more often than not, with people of - you know, African American and darker-skin folks. It's just not accurate. So all those things coupled together, we have said, look, it's time for a time-out on this, and let's figure out how we can put in safeguards that protect our fundamental liberties.
And then the good thing is, Steve, this is one of those few areas on our committee where we actually got some bipartisan support. And so we're working with Chairman Cummings' staff and trying to come up with the right kind of legislation.
INSKEEP: Elijah Cummings, the head of the committee, the Democratic head of the committee. Let me just ask, though. We haven't heard a detailed response from ICE or from the FBI about why they thought this was necessary, but we can easily imagine what it is. I can easily imagine an argument being tailored to you, as a conservative Republican. It could be said, look, we're looking for people who are in the United States illegally, and these various states have, in many cases, let them come partway out of the shadows by going to get a driver's license. And so there's the information. It's right in front of us, if we just use it. Why wouldn't we go get it to find these people who are here illegally?
JORDAN: Here's the concern with this technology and in the broad sense, whether it's used as you've described, or whether it's used in some other capacity. This is all happening, this technology, happening with the concerns we've already laid out. But it's happening in an environment where we know just a few years ago, a federal agency with the power and clout that the IRS had, the IRS systematically targeted people for their political beliefs. So in that environment, when we know it's happened in the last decade, where an agency overstepped their bounds and went after people for their political beliefs, and now they have facial recognition technology that they can go after people - I mean, I think about this scenario.
This was raised in the committee, Steve, by, I believe the witness from the ACLU. It's powerful. And the witness said, if there's a rally going on - and let's say it's one on the left. It's a pro-choice rally. Or it could be a pro-life rally. It could be one on the right. You have a rally going on. The government's not allowed to walk into that rally and walk up to people and say, hey, show me your ID. They're not allowed to walk in there and pull out the pad and say, put your finger here, I want to get your fingerprint.
They're not allowed to do that. But if they have a camera, a remote camera, scanning everyone's face, they can know who attended what kind of rally. And that chilling impact on free speech and on First Amendment liberties is what scares me to death and I think scares people across the political spectrum.
INSKEEP: I want to remind people of a bit of history that you referred to. The IRS was accused of targeting political groups, particularly conservative groups, and there...
INSKEEP: ...Was a dispute about how serious it was, but the IRS acknowledged some wrongdoing there. It sounds to me like...
JORDAN: Sure did. It was very serious.
INSKEEP: ...You are concerned about the far-reaching power of the federal government about...
JORDAN: Heck, yeah.
INSKEEP: And a specific instance, using more and more data, more and more surveillance to understand every bit of the lives of private citizens. That's your big concern, right?
JORDAN: Exactly right. You know, we know other countries, this goes on. Other countries don't have the liberties and the freedoms and the Constitution that we have. And that is my concern, particularly when you think about recent history, as I pointed out, and what an agency with the powers that the IRS has over our lives, what they were caught doing.
INSKEEP: Just a few seconds here. Should the government ban the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement, as San Francisco and some other places have done?
JORDAN: Well, that was a vote of the council and the folks in San Francisco, and God bless them for doing that. I think what we have to look at is, how can we work together with the Democrats and come up with something that safeguards our liberties? And we're looking at that right now. Whether it's an all-out ban or not, I don't know. Whether it's a time-out, I don't know. But the good news is we're working together, and this is one of those few areas where we've been able to find some common ground.
INSKEEP: Jim Jordan of Ohio, thanks for the time - really appreciate it.
JORDAN: You bet. Thank you.
INSKEEP: He's a Republican, and the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.