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Nuts & Bolts

June 19, 2013

State photo-ID databases become troves for police

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

"The potential for abuse of this technology is such that we have to make sure we put in place the right safeguards to prevent misuse," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said in a statement. "We also need to make sure the government is as transparent as possible in order to give the American people confidence it's using this technology appropriately."

A few states, including Washington, Oregon and Minnesota, have legal barriers to police accessing facial-recognition technology in driver's-license registries. New Hampshire's legislature passed a law prohibiting motor vehicle officials from collecting any biometric data.

But the broader trend is toward more sophisticated databases with more expansive access. The current version of the Senate's immigration bill would dramatically expand an electronic photo-verification system, probably relying on access to driver's-license registries.

Montana has a facial-recognition system to help prevent fraud among its driver's-license registry, but officials are still debating whether to allow police any kind of access.

"I can see it's an amazingly powerful tool. It has a lot of possibilities," said Brenda Nordlund, the administrator of the Motor Vehicle Division there. "I don't know if that's what citizens expect when they come in and get their driver's-license pictures taken."

There are substantial variations in how states allow police searches of their driver's-license databases. Some allow only licensing-agency officials to conduct the actual searches. Others let police do searches themselves, but only from a headquarters office. And still others have made the technology available to almost any officer willing to get trained.

Police long have had access to some driver's-license information — including photographs — when they are investigating criminal suspects whose names they know. But facial-recognition technology has allowed police working from a photo of an unknown person to search for a name.

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