COLUMBUS, Ohio — A review by Attorney General Dave Yost has found no misuse of the state’s facial recognition system, but he is revoking access to 4,549 Ohio law enforcement officers until they can be trained on the use and limitations of the technology.
“The bottom line is there were no dragnets, there was no mass surveillance,” Yost said Wednesday in unveiling his report at a Statehouse press conference. “Ohio’s system is done carefully, lawfully and with strict controls and regulations.”
Yost ordered the review on July 9 after The Washington Post reported that federal law enforcement officials have mined Bureau of Motor Vehicle photo databases nationwide — without the approval of Congress or state legislatures — and without the knowledge or consent of millions of drivers with no criminal records.
Of the 10,652 searches of the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway’s database of 24 million photos between 2017 and July 9, 2019, 418 or 3.8% involved federal agencies, led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol station at Sandusky Bay on Lake Erie. All involved legitimate inquiries, Yost said.
The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in Cincinnati, which apparently uses the system routinely when booking prisoners, ran the most searches with 4,180. The Columbus Division of Police was fifth with 768.
Among Akron-area law enforcement agencies, Akron Police led with 185 searches, followed by Stow Police with 85, Copley Police with 44 and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office with 41.
Taking the photo of a criminal suspect or wanted person, police search the database to produce photos with similar parameters as a first step toward identifying a person, Yost said.
Yost said he is yanking back access to the system, now granted to more than 4,500 Ohio officers, until they can be trained on the proper use of the system and its limitations, such as having more difficulty in producing similar images when the photo of the person being sought is an African American or a woman. Searches instead will be done directly by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
In Ohio, the BMV turned over driver’s license photos from 2011 to BCI, part of the attorney general’s office, for its facial-recognition system designed to identify unknown criminal suspects. The BMV never provided additional or updated photos for use in the system.
Then-Attorney General Mike DeWine, now governor, granted the FBI access to Ohio’s facial-recognition system in 2016, with other federal agencies also gaining access. Unlike Ohio law enforcement, federal authorities had no direct access to the system and ran their checks through BCI.
DeWine said he was pleased Yost’s review found no abuses of facial-recognition technology. “As AG, I took significant steps to prevent its abuse,” the governor wrote in a tweet. “This is a valuable law enforcement tool that also contains sensitive information, so I support the AG’s add’l safeguards to ensure its proper use.”
Yost said he planned to talk to DeWine’s administration “to see what their appetite is for updating” the system with additional and more driver’s license photos.
He pushed back on the notion that Ohioans driver’s license photos are being searched by police agencies without their permission or knowledge. The whole purpose of driver’s license photos is to allow officers to confirm the identity of people, Yost said.