ACLU sues MassDOT over surveillance data

Accuses agency of sharing RMV photos with feds

THE HITS WON’T STOP for the state’s Department of Transportation. The issue this time? The use of the state’s driver’s license database for surveillance by federal agencies.

The ACLU of Massachusetts filed a Superior Court lawsuit against MassDOT Wednesday, alleging the Registry of Motor Vehicles was sharing its database of ID photographs with agencies such as the FBI and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The ACLU says such information sharing is unconstitutional, a violation of privacy rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.

The suit was filed after two public records requests seeking information on how the technology is being used were ignored by MassDOT.

MassDOT told WBUR that the RMV cooperates with law enforcement on specific case-by-case queries related to criminal investigations, but doesn’t just let federal authorities gain automatic access to the system. The ACLU insists the RMV database has been available to most law enforcement agencies for face surveillance since 2006 without regulation. The group says it filed its public records requests with MassDOT to verify how the database is being used.

State Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton and Rep. David Rogers of Cambridge have filed legislation that would place a temporary hold on the use of facial recognition while regulations on the issue are established by lawmakers.

The preamble to the bill states that the Massachusetts General Court finds that face recognition technology has a history of being far less accurate in identifying the faces of women, young people, and dark-skinned people, and that such inaccuracies lead to harmful “false positive” identifications. The preamble goes on to state that the “use of face recognition poses unique and significant civil rights and civil liberties threats to the residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Back in April, Brown University student Amara Majeed was incorrectly identified as one of the Easter bombing terrorists by Sri Lankan police due to an error with the tech. Majeed woke one morning to find a flood of xenophobic slurs, threats, and accusations of terrorism flooding her inbox and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“That was because of an error in a facial recognition system,” ACLU’s Kade Crockford told WGBH, “We really have no guarantees that those types of abuses won’t happen here.”

Last year, in a test run by the ACLU with Amazon’ facial recognition software, 28 lawmakers were misidentified as crime suspects, including, ironically, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a prominent civil rights leader.