Ohio Freezes Most Law Enforcement Access to Facial-Recognition Analysis of Driver's License Photos

The restrictions ordered by Ohio Attorney General David Yost are temporary as officers are trained on potential flaws in facial recognition technology.

Ohio Freezes Most Law Enforcement Access to Facial-Recognition Analysis of Driver's License Photos

Most law enforcement agencies in Ohio will lose — at least temporarily — access to a database of roughly 21 million driver's license photos taken in the state after a decision Ohio Attorney General David Yost announced yesterday. 

That will be a big deal for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, which has led the state in usage of the database. Cincinnati Police have also been an active user of the database, performing the third-highest number of searches of any agency in the state in the last few years.

After media reports revealed federal law enforcement practices using facial recognition software on state driver's license databases, Yost earlier this year asked for a review of the database and the way officers use it. 

That inquiry didn't find any improper conduct, but, before they log back on, Yost wants the roughly 4,500 officers who had access to the system trained on the current weaknesses possible with facial recognition software that could lead to gender or racial bias. In the meantime, 20 state law enforcement investigators will retain access to the database; other officers can request searches through those investigators. 

“The bottom line is there were no dragnets, there was no mass surveillance,” Yost said today at a news conference in Columbus. “Ohio’s system is done carefully, lawfully and with strict controls and regulations.”

Then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine opened the doors to use of the photos in 2013, allowing thousands of local law enforcement and court officials to scan photos in the database with facial recognition software. DeWine broadened access to federal investigators in 2016. 

Investigators have access to the database through the larger Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway, which is open to 26,000 officers and court employees throughout the state. However, DeWine limited the number of officers with access to the facial recognition database specifically to 4,500 in 2014.

It is unclear to what extent the FBI accesses the photos. The Ohio Department of Public Safety says it gave the FBI copies of driver's license photos in 2011 but otherwise doesn't grant access to them on an ongoing basis. DeWine in 2013 said that the bureau had access to photos kept by the state through a state Bureau of Criminal Investigation database, however. BCI says agents can gain access to specific photos for specific purposes.

In July, the Washington Post reported findings by researchers with Georgetown University's Privacy and Technology Center showing that FBI agents are able to access 21 states' drivers' license records for facial recognition scanning purposes, including Ohio's millions of driver's license and mug shot photos.

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