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Yost Orders Review Of FBI Access To Ohio's Drivers License Database

Ohio Driver's License

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has ordered a review of state databases that are being accessed by outside law enforcement agencies. He also wants to know how that data is being used.

The directive comes on the heels of a Washington Post story listing Ohio as one of 21 states that has shared its drivers' license database with the FBI for facial recognition scans.

In 2016, the Ohio AG's office under then-Attorney General Mike DeWine began allowing FBI agents to access the database as needed, despite objections raised by the ACLU.

Yost on Tuesday said Ohio is not at risk of becoming a surveillance state but called for "transparency and clarity."

The AG's staff will also examine statutes and memos dictating access to the database and report their findings in 30 days. 

"After the facts are more fully known, a course will be charted that balances the safety of Ohioans with a respect for privacy and liberty," Yost said in a written statement.

In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said he's concerned about inaccuracies with facial recognition technology.  

"It's wrong, often," Jordan said. "And it's wrong, more often than not, with people with darker skin. So it impacts African Americans in a negative way. You've got First Amendment, Fourth Amendment concerns, due process concerns. And all this is happening in a country with 50 million surveillance cameras. So, yeah, it's a concern, I think, for people on the left, people on the right. Just anyone who cares about our civil liberties."

Jordan is the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which held a hearing on federal agencies' use of facial recognition technology last month.

Seven states — Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Utah and the District of Columbia — allow the FBI to search its driver's license, mugshot and corrections department photo databases, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 

Jordan said Ohioans or the legislature should have had a say in the decision to allow federal access to the state's drivers licenses.

"Almost every single state that has given the okay, it went through, not a vote of the legislature, people directly elected by 'we the people'," he told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Instead, it was some bureaucrat in some governor's office or in some state agency that signed some agreement with some bureaucrat in a federal agency and now they have an understanding that they can access the data."

Records obtained by the Georgetown University Law Center on Privacy and Technology, and provided to the Washington Post, show FBI and ICE agents have scanned through millions of Americans’ photos without their knowledge or consent, often in collaboration with state officials. Since 2011, the FBI has conducted more than 390,000 facial-recognition searches of federal and local databases, including state motor vehicle records.

Even in states that do not allow direct or full federal access to their photo databases, federal agents can still ask state officials to conduct the searches for them and report back with the results, according to the Post.

Lindsey Bohrer, assistant director of communications for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, which includes the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said in an email that the BMV does not and did not "provide direct access to the DL [driver's license] database to any federal agency.” But in 2011, Bohrer says, "we provided a one-time file transfer containing DL photos to the AG's Office."

"Any additional access from federal agencies would have been done through the AG's Office," she wrote.

In an August 2013 press conference, DeWine said local and state law enforcement had access to the photos through OHLEG, a state criminal justice database. He said the technology proved useful in identifying suspects, adding that he should have told the public about the facial recognition technology sooner.

In 2016, Georgetown’s Privacy and Technology Center reported that FBI agents were able to access Ohio’s photo database.

“Individual members of law enforcement agencies may be granted access to OHLEG based upon a stated need, to include agents of the FBI,” Bureau of Criminal Investigation Chief Counsel Gregory Trout wrote to Georgetown researchers in 2016, according to a document published by the researchers. “But there is no plan, and there are no negotiations, to merge or link the OHLEG database with the FBI’s investigative database.”

In his Tuesday statement, Yost said he had “reviewed the level of access granted to our database for federal agencies prior to my administration, the picture has become more complicated and less clear.”