Arizona’s implementation of the Department of Homeland Security’s REAL ID Act may take you by surprise. Arizona’s efforts do have plausible justification which could protect a given person from the identity fraud that seems to have spread like wildfire. It follows that as powerful technology becomes more accessible, we need to enact greater measures to combat nefarious characters working to abuse that technological to commit fraud.
It would be nice if the citizens of Arizona, and presumably other states soon to follow, were told about the measures through which their identity is being protected, however. Namely, their own picture being stored in what has been referred to as a ‘perpetual lineup’, used to check if a citizen is wanted for any current offenses on a regular basis. The Arizona Capitol Times describes the system in more detail.
‘After someone at the Motor Vehicle Division takes your photo, your face is scanned by a system based on a proprietary algorithm that analyzes facial features. The system compares your face against the 19 million photos in the state’s driver’s license database to look for similarities. If an image is similar enough, the system will flag it for further review.
On average, the system flags 200 new licenses each day, according to ADOT spokesman Ryan Harding. Of the 200, 5 percent, or 10, typically move to a second level and require further evaluation. Of those 10, usually one will advance to a final step and become an active investigation.’ (AZ Capitol Times)
Further, the Arizona Department of Transportation says that it is no rogue department. In fact, it is merely complying with the federal REAL ID Act, passed in 2005 as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks and scheduled for systematic enforcement in December of 2013. The ambiguously-worded act calls for ‘established minimum security standards for license issuance and production and prohibits Federal agencies from accepting for certain purposes driver’s licenses and identification cards from states not meeting the Act’s minimum standards.’ (DHS) Importantly, those minimum standards are not made available for public viewing, but it is noted that ‘half’ of the states are already in compliance with those standards.
Many, if not most, Arizona citizens had no clue they were volunteering for a perpetual lineup, accessible by local and federal law enforcement, by applying for or renewing their license. This lack of notice, and lack of clarity in just how the database is used beyond comparing pictures to root out fraud, is where critics find a bone to pick. The site The Perpetual Line-Up offers a state-by-state infographic highlighting each state’s policy on facial recognition technology in relation to mug shots and driver’s license photographs. The site acknowledges the benefits of facial recognition access and related algorithms employed by law enforcement, but also points out – as the case of Arizona exemplifies – that the current use of this technology is unregulated and opaque.
‘No state has passed a law comprehensively regulating police face recognition. We are not aware of any agency that requires warrants for searches or limits them to serious crimes. This has consequences. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office enrolled all of Honduras’ driver’s licenses and mug shots into its database. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office system runs 8,000 monthly searches on the faces of seven million Florida drivers—without requiring that officers have even a reasonable suspicion before running a search. The county public defender reports that the Sheriff’s Office has never disclosed the use of face recognition…’ (The Perpetual Line-Up)
The site’s concerns range beyond mere issues of criminality and the traditional limits of law enforcement, however. They bring up the possibility that such facial recognition technology on such a broad scale could be used to track those whose opinions are considered dissident. Worse yet, facial recognition technology is less accurate than fingerprinting, yet it may be used in a similar capacity. After all, we don’t know precisely how it is being used, so who can say that it isn’t being used, or won’t be used, to such an end?
‘Of the 52 agencies that we found to use (or have used) face recognition, we found only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, whose face recognition use policy expressly prohibits its officers from using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech.’
With the downsides of this facial recognition database in mind, and the fact that states are implementing such systems under the REAL ID Act, consider the limitations that the REAL ID Act will place on the residents of states who do not comply with its parameters which, I reiterate, remain unclear. States who do not meet the standards of the REAL ID Act, which it is fair to presume include the criminal database such as the one in Arizona, will see their licenses essentially rendered null and void at airports and government buildings.
‘Bad news for Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington: Starting January 22, 2018, driver's licenses issued by these states will no longer be accepted at TSA checkpoints. They fail to meet the federal government’s minimum security standards under the Real ID Act. Instead, travelers have to use another form of identification to pass through security for domestic flights—think military ID, permanent resident card, or passport.’ (Conde Nast Traveler)
The REAL ID Act, the more you look into it, is far wider in scope than originally presented. Protecting Americans from fraud seems to be the least important aspect which the REAL ID Act provides for. An agreement between the Arizona Department of Transportation and the FBI which will be undoubtedly spread nation-wide – at risk of federal suspension of the validity of a state’s licenses in an official capacity – presents overly broad parameters for how a federal search of the database will be justified.
‘In order for a search to be granted, the search must involve people suspected of committing a crime or “who law enforcement may suspect is about to commit a crime.” People could also be involved in activities that are threats to public safety, sought as part of a criminal investigation or “intelligence-gathering effort,” applicants for a security clearance, have a warrant issued for them, suspected of benefits fraud or labeled as a missing person.’ (AZ Capitol Times)
Some see the first steps of the REAL ID Act as the first steps toward a single, national identification system. State licenses will be no more, they say, replaced by a federally issued license with oversight accordingly regulated at the federal level. For libertarians and states-righters, this would be yet another obvious step in the wrong direction, further empowering the federal government and its agencies while undermining the rights of individual states and its citizens, whose ideologies and beliefs about liberty vary immensely.
For those who find the idea of carrying a passport for domestic flights to be unnecessarily risky or troublesome, they will realize soon how imminent the effects of the REAL ID Act are. For a comprehensive understanding of whether the Act is truly meant to protect us from fraud, or whether it is an Act meant to benefit the government instead of the people, at great expense to the states, we must wait and see. If you have a flight coming up, it might be wise to have your passport handy.