The Truth About Cars » Facial Recognition The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Fri, 25 Jul 2014 14:28:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Facial Recognition Why Can’t You Smile At The DMV? How Your Photo Is Used Without Your Knowledge Fri, 06 Sep 2013 14:00:19 +0000 mclovin

The news that Ohio has joined a majority of other states in silently using facial recognition to make drivers “suspects” without their knowledge has been in the news for the past day or so. My first impulse was to write an incendiary tract where I compared my current home state to Soviet Russia in a manner that would be favorable to Soviet Russia. In the interest of balance, however, I reached out to someone with a deeper personal knowledge on the issue to provide a more dispassionate viewpoint. We’ve honored the writer’s request, and made this an anonymous contribution —- JB

The dreaded/joyful day has arrived when your teenaged son or daughter has passed the requisite tests, and it is time to smile for the camera and proudly receive that plastic card that legally empowers him or her to drive the mean streets of your neighborhood. You’ve already warned the neighbors, and they have dutifully moved everything mobile away from the curb. The mailboxes may suffer, but what can be done? Your excited child lines up exactly where he is told (you’re shocked to see that yes, he can still respond to simple instructions), in front of the appropriately colored cloth hanging on the wall, and flashes the happiest (only?) smile you’ve seen in years, proudly showing off the thousands of dollars you spent on orthodontia. The irritated DMV worker snaps, “YOU CAN’T SMILE!!!!”* Your child’s face turns to mild annoyance, and SNAP, the somewhat puzzled look is captured for what is probably “all time” in this day and age of the “cloud”. Why are the evil DMV people raining on your kid’s parade, making driver’s license photos even more hideous than seems necessary? It’s all in the name of facial recognition.

These days in most states, in going to the DMV to get a driving permit or license (or even a state ID card for those curious non-driver types), you are not just receiving the legal authority to operate a motor vehicle and accidentally registering to vote, you are (in a majority of states) consenting to the submission of your photo to a database which can – and make no mistake, will, as allowed by state law – be searched for a variety of purposes, from identity fraud (which has been proven successful in multiple states across the nation) to searching for criminals whose identity is unknown. The use of facial recognition has been pretty big news over the past year (Boston bombing, anyone?), at least to those who pay attention to such things.

It made a huge splash over the past few weeks in Ohio. The article is a bit long, but worth the read if you care about privacy and what the government can do with your DMV photo. Also if you want a primer on how NOT to launch government use of a new, somewhat creepy, technology on an unsuspecting public, especially in a postSnowden world. And if you love reading the following arguments: “But everyone else is doing it!!!!” and “It’s going to catch bad people.” But I digress. So what is the fuss all about? If you haven’t done anything wrong, aren’t you supposed to have nothing to fear? Maybe. Maybe not.

Automated face recognition is not a “lights-out” or “positive identification” system. The result of the search doesn’t say “this is the guy, go arrest him!”, which may or may not be of any comfort. Essentially, this is what happens (prepare for horrible over-simplification – if you want the in-depth technical treatment, use the internet): your face image – your high cheekbones, the distance between your perfectly set eyes, the position of the corners of your mouth, and your Roman nose is converted into a string of 1s and 0s. When a photo is submitted to a facial recognition system for searching, that photo is likewise converted into a numerical representation. An algorithm then compares the1s and 0s of the submitted photo to the number generated to represent the cheekbones, eyes, mouth, and nose of every other individual found in the database. It isn’t image comparison, it is math; the world of cliched Ph.D.s, not mugshot line-ups of old. When it is done working its “magic”, the result is a list of photos of people who “could be the guy”.

If your perp is a (pick a race) (pick a gender), (pick an age range), the list of 10 (or 20, or 50; the number is based on variable settings which might be the “top ##” matches or a percentage threshold) could be made up of 10 people who don’t “look” like the perp – ethnicity, age, even gender could be “wrong”. (Years ago when a “celebrity doppleganger” facial recognition app was making the rounds, before I knew anything about how this stuff works, I was shocked to find the top results looked nothing like me, including wrong race and gender. The algorithms have gotten better, but it’s still math. And it’s still confused by glasses. And beards. And hats.) Once the list is provided, someone decides whether any of them might be the perp. That person may be trained in facial comparison and identification, or she could be a local cop who has received no training. In any case, law enforcement (or the DMV or any other authorized user) with the right equipment and the right access can submit a photo of someone who is not you, and (based on math) receive your driver’s license and personal information about you as a “this might be the guy” candidate. As a result of this, depending on agency rules/state laws, your photo – which you thought at the time it was taken was for that whole driving thing – could end up as part of a criminal investigation. Your information – name, date of birth, address, perhaps still in some states your social security number – might be sitting in some investigative file, or may even be uploaded into a law enforcement database. Of course there are supposed to be rules in place which protect our privacy by governing how all this information is accessed and used, but as we see from Ohio, sometimes the technological cart finds itself in front of the legal/policy horse.

When law enforcement argues that they aren’t doing anything “different” with facial recognition and DMV photos, they are right. And they’re wrong. There is something that feels decidedly different, and uncomfortable, about having our faces searched, particularly when nothing else is known about us to the searchers. When we HAVE to provide our likeness in order to do something which is so basic in our society it feels like a “right”. About the idea that our photo could be taken while we participate in a protest or a political rally, fully within our First Amendment rights, and even though there are (supposed to be) rules in place to prevent it, that photo could be run against a database, and because we drive, our identity is discovered, our anonymity dissolved. In a world where there seem to be cameras everywhere (and don’t believe everything you read – we’re not to Minority Report or Jason Bourne-type surveillance land, either technologically or legally…yet), where federal law allows your driver’s license information to be used for a shocking variety of purposes beyond even law enforcement (photos are, at least in some states, more protected from disclosure than the other information), facial recognition technology keeps marching on, and the “if it catches bad guys, it must be okay” mantra constantly clashes with the Constitution – and sometimes wins, our collective and individual feelings about privacy are, at best, conflicted. If we want to drive a motor vehicle, in most of these United States, we are consenting to the use of our image for law enforcement purposes. And somehow, that just doesn’t feel right, especially when we don’t know such uses exist.

So what is the truth to be found here about cars? If you drive one, chances are your face – and all the information attached to your driver’s license – is fair game for a technology that is new and not yet at the point where it can make perfect identity determinations. For some people this is totally unnerving. For others, it brings no discomfort. This information is not provided to tell you what to think about the issue, as reasonable minds can and do differ, but simply to make you aware that your license is not just a license to drive…in reality, in a majority of states, it is a license to allow law enforcement agencies to consider whether you are a suspect in a crime to which you have no connection, based solely on a mathematical interpretation of the structure of your face. A consideration which would never have occurred without your love and (probably actual, not simply transcendental) need for cars.

*So why can’t you smile at the DMV? (Not that most DMV experiences lead to smiles.) Smiling, and other non-neutral facial expressions, make automated facial recognition more difficult. It’s the same reason sunglasses aren’t allowed, and head coverings are prohibited unless worn for religious or medical purposes.

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2011: A DMV Odyssey Mon, 08 Aug 2011 17:18:10 +0000

[Editor's Note: This piece, by Eric Peters, has been republished from the National Motorist's Association blog. It originally appeared at]

Big Brother’s doing a bit more than just watching you these days.

Remember the last time you got your driver’s license renewed? You may recall the procedure for taking your picture was a bit different than it used to be.

Instead of the usual “smile” you might have been told to do no such thing — very specifically. To be as expressionless as possible. And that the system seemed more “high-tech” than it used to be. Instead of receiving your new license on-site, it would be mailed to you in a week or so — from some unspecified “secure location,” perhaps.

You may have been told or seen signs or been given literature explaining that the new way of taking your picture is part of new security measures designed to make it harder for people to manufacture fake IDs (since a driver’s license is the de facto national ID in this country).

But they probably didn’t mention that the pictures — digitized images, actually — were to be downloaded into a new database that uses facial recognition software to “scan” for (are you surprised?) Terrorists — among other things.

Only it’s ordinary Americans who are being terrorized.

As The Boston Globe reports, Massachussetts resident John H. Gass had his license revoked after the facial recognition Hive Mind deemed him an un-Person. Glass had done nothing, though — other than being tardy opening his mail, including a threatening letter from the Massachussetts Registry of Motor Vehicles demanding that he prove the guy pictured on his DL was, in fact, him.

Here’s where it gets interesting — and depressing.

Gass had already established his identity — apparently, to the satisfaction of the state motor vehicle authorities — at the time his license was originally issued. Just like everyone else who applies for a driver’s license. Now it — well, a computer — demanded he prove it again. On his nickel. On his own time.

Or else.

“Or else” being — no more driving privileges for you.

Gass tried to do so — for ten days, according to The Globe.

First, he called the Motor Vehicle Registry, explaining that he’d forgotten to open his mail, including the letter they’d sent dated March 22, which notified him his license had been revoked effective April 1. The bureaucrats at the registry advised him his digitized image had been “flagged” by the computer because it was similar in appearance to the image of someone else. Now it was up to him, said the Registry drone, to come to them with documents to prove his identity.


Remember, Gass, like everyone else who has a driver’s license, had to provide such documentation at the time the driver’s license was issued. He had complied with the letter of the law. But now the law had changed. The arbitrary determination of a computer had resulted in the capricious revocation of his driver’s license.

This is of a piece with the TSA “No Fly” lists that have created nightmare hassles for people just trying to board a plane whose only association with “Islamic Terrorism” is that they watched Syriana a couple of years back. Usually not even that.

“I was shocked,’’ Gass said in a recent interview. “As far as I was concerned, I had done nothing wrong.’’

Meanwhile, his license would remain revoked — no small thing for Gass, who drives for a living.

So Gass brought his birth certificate and Social Security card to the Registry to establish that he was in fact himself (again). Insufficient. The drones demanded he also produce additional documents with his current address on them. By this time, Gass had obtained the assistance of a lawyer, who provided the registry drones with the documents and on April 14, at last, his driving privileges were restored.

Gass is suing the state, demanding a court an injunction blocking the MA Motor Vehicle Registry from revoking anyone’s driver’s license without at least giving them a hearing first.

May the Force be with him.

And with the rest of us, too — because this business is not confined to that imprisoned land, The People’s Republic of Massachussetts. At least 34 states are also using facial recognition software — typically (as in the case of MA) funded by a “grant” from the Department of Homeland Security.

Massachussetts received $1.5 million taxpayer dollars to harass the taxpayers of Massachussetts, for instance.

“The advantage if securing the identity of 4 1/2 million drivers is of considerable state interest,” says MA Motor Vehicle Registry Obergruppenfuhrer Rachel Kaprielian. “We send out 1,500 suspension letters every day,” she croons.

And it’s up to each and every one of these hapless recipients to prove to the state that the state is wrong — another example of the casual upending of a basic tenet of what was once our common heritage in the West: That you are innocent until proven guilty.

Not the reverse.

“There are mistakes that can be made,” admits Kaprielian.

But that’s not the state’s problem, of course. It is Gass’s problem.

And quite possibly, your problem, too.

This piece, by Eric Peters, originally appeared at


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