Smile! NYPD looks to use DMV photos for investigations, prompting privacy concerns

NEW YORK — In the name of safety, the NYPD is looking to add every single New Yorker with a driver's license to a facial recognition database, but privacy advocates fear it's taking big brother to a whole new level.

If the NYPD's plan is approved, when you smile for the camera at the Department of Motor Vehicles, your mug and millions of others in New York could land in the hands of the police.

Police say the digital database will be the first of its kind aimed at helping investigators solve missing-persons cases.

"The way it is now, we don’t have access to them, so it’s a discussion that we’re going to have to have internally to make sure we protect people’s privacy," NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said.

However, protecting privacy is a concern.

As of this reporting, more than two dozen states allow law enforcement to tap into troves of state identification photographs. Those digital lineups are meant to help law enforcement catch criminals and terrorists through facial-recognition technology.

The NYPD says its database will be used for noncriminal investigations, but privacy advocates, like Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, don't buy it, and are reminded of the watchful big-brother government portrayed in George Orwell's book "1984."

"Feels a lot more like the fearful days of the KGB and the East German intelligence,​ when the police department is gathering information about somebody. If it's private, they have to use a warrant or subpoena. It's not OK to have a massive big-brother file going on," Lieberman said. "We’re entitled to the assumption that when we go out in public, and we’re not doing anything wrong, nobody is keeping a permanent file of every move we make, but that seems to be what's going on."

O'Neill said he understands the blurred boundaries the database would create.

"We always have to balance people’s private rights with public safety," the commissioner said.

The state will have to sign off before handing over images of innocent New Yorkers.

A DMV spokesperson told PIX11: “We have not received a formal request from the NYPD and as such we can’t comment. We would have to review any request within the confines of state law which governs the use and dissemination of DMV photos.”

Below, PIX11 viewers chime in: Should the NYPD have access to your DMV photos?