The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows.
About This Project
To create Who Has Your Face, EFF, with the help of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, reviewed thousands of pages of public records to determine as clearly as possible what government photos of U.S. citizens, residents, and travelers are shared with which agencies for facial recognition purposes. Our goal was to create a short quiz that you can use to learn which U.S. government agencies may have access to your photo for facial recognition purposes.
What we learned was that, despite you never opting in or agreeing to it, government agencies—including the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and law enforcement—could all be scanning your face with facial recognition software and entering you into a “perpetual lineup,” and potentially implicating you for a crime you haven’t committed. It can be difficult if not impossible to opt out, as you’re entered into these databases just for having an ID, or for attempting to travel or apply for a job.
We also determined that, despite hundreds of hours of research, it’s nearly impossible to know precisely which agencies are sharing which photos, and with whom. Each agency across the U.S., from state DMV’s to the State Department, shares access to their photos differently, depending on agreements with local police, other states, and federal agencies. We were continuously thwarted in our research by non-responsive government agencies, conflicting information and agreements, and the generally covert nature of these policies. This is a huge problem: it should be easy to learn who has the personal data that you’ve been required to hand over in exchange for a driver’s license, or for re-entry into the country after visiting family in a foreign nation.
But agencies respond differently to requests for transparency: sent the same public records request, some DMVs gave the precise number of requests that had been made but not which agencies made them—for example, Wisconsin’s DMV received 238 requests in 2016; Nevada received 788 requests between June 14, 2015, and March 8, 2018. Other DMVs responded with who had made requests and how many: a list of agency requests to Utah included Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, various state Fusion Centers, state Secret Service agencies, and the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy. Still others regarded the questions as overbroad and did not respond at all, or claimed to have no responsive records—Alabama essentially ignored the request until sent an example of the Memorandum of Understanding we believed they had signed. This level of obfuscation is, frankly, unacceptable. It should be simple for anyone to learn who has their private, biometric data, and we must work to make it easier.
Lack of transparency is, of course, only part of the problem. Face surveillance is a growing menace to our privacy, as government builds the infrastructure to track our movements and associations with an unchangeable marker we expose everywhere we go: our faces. Face surveillance also deters people from protesting in public spaces, disparately burdens people of color, and has been deployed against immigrants. EFF urges a ban on government use of face surveillance.
Thankfully, more and more laws that ban government use of face recognition are passing around the country. In addition to the several states which currently don’t allow or don’t have face recognition at DMVs (California, Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wyoming), cities like San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland in California, and Somerville in Massachusetts have also passed bans on its use by city governments. California has even passed a moratorium on government use of face recognition with mobile cameras. As more cities pass these bans, we hope more states join in protecting their residents.
Credits: Many thanks to Clare Garvie and others at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, as well as Sam Phillips, Sam Hamilton, Sam Ong, Everett Reed, Kevin Bate, and William Burton for their assistance in public records requests and research.
Journalists interested in the project can learn more in the press release, and can download our dataset as a CSV for more information.