By on August 8, 2011

[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he’d forgotten to open his mail, including the letter they’d sent dated March 22, which notified him his license had been revoked effective April 1.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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30 Comments on “2011: A DMV Odyssey...”

  • avatar

    “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.”

    No, they mentioned this. It was on big signs all over the DMV lobby, actually.

    • 0 avatar

      Do you think that this is a good idea? Do you think that it is right or wrong?

      • 0 avatar

        See below comment. You need a human being in the chain of “facial recognition -> revoked license” because aside from any ethical ramifications, which can be debated endlessly, the tech just doesn’t work that well yet. We are not yet at a level, technologically, where we can have Helios just run our whole government for us, so the ethical debate is (currently) moot.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll go with that, too much trust in both technology and government isn’t a good thing in most cases. I’d rather call it Skynet though.

      • 0 avatar

        There are enough examples that I could come up with a different reference every time I post. I was thinking about going with “Adam Selene” but I figured even fewer people would get the reference.

      • 0 avatar

        @Aristurtle: That would have been especially appropriate in a reply to Mike.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I’m sure the people who support this are the same ones who voiced their support for the X-ray truck in one of Jack Baruth’s recent editorials.

    • 0 avatar

      The difference is that whatever your views on the ethical ramifications, the scanner truck actually works, in that it’ll see through the sides of a panel truck or trunk lid or whatever fairly reliably. Putting facial scans of everyone in the state into a database will introduce you quickly to what crypto geeks call “the birthday problem”.

      Basically, for a room full of n people, what is the probability p that two of them have the same birthday? (We will leave Feb. 29 out of this to keep the math easy). Naturally, at n = 366, p = 1.00. Where does p = 0.99? Why, it’s at n = 57. Whoops! p = 0.5 at n = 23. In short, odds of a match go up way more quickly than you might intuitively think as the population increases.

      So what are the odds of a false match in a facial recognition database for a given population? Well, that depends on your facial recognition software. As somebody in a related field let me just say that the state of the art is not that great right now, although better than it used to be a few years ago. 4.5 million people? Ha, not a chance. You need a human being to review the results with a way lower population. Some bureaucrat got some silly sci-fi idea and some company oversold on what the product could do. So now there’s a facial recognition system plugged directly into the process for revoking licenses and the tech isn’t there yet.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        Now you’re reminding me that I watched my DVD copy of “Diamonds Are Forever” this weekend and Blowfeld’s attempt to create a “copy” of himself through plastic surgery.

      • 0 avatar

        to translate aristurtle’s post into layman’s terms:

        The likelihood (not to be confused with probability) that two people have similar facial structures goes up as you add more people to the database. What that means is that the likelihood of someone incorrectly being identified as a terrorist goes up as more people are added to the database.

        Some politician posturing to voters trying to be “tough on crime/drugs/terroism” combined with some company trying to make money claims “look at how awesome our software is!” equals ““We send out 1,500 suspension letters every day,” she croons.” probably none of them terrorists.

      • 0 avatar

        Wiki’s got a graph that illustrates it pretty well, too, for the tl;dr crowd: Link. Look at that slope. The graph doesn’t even bother going all the way to 366. Any “find a pair in this population” problem will have a similar slope on how quickly false positives become likely, it’s just the numbers on the axes that will change.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup. The tech isn’t the exact problem. The problem is that the DMV process made an assumption about the maturity of the tech that was inaccurate. Once the tech has reached a level of competency that mitigates false positives, no one will complain.

      To complain about computers making decisions for us is hypocritical at best. Machines think for us in drug discovery and administration (think the CVS database that keeps you from taking Metaformin and IV-contrast together). Machines think for us in banking and capital disposition. Machines think for us whenever a plane is in autopilot. Machines think for us in determining how much food to procure for a given region based on historical norms and trending data (WalMart doesn’t guess how much corn and beef to send to its supermarkets, it knows). Machines will think for us once Google Cars is complete.

      We are all slaves to technology. In some cases it is deployed too soon (here where the MA DMV has plugged it into the decision making matrix prior to sufficient field testing). Sometimes the technology is plugged in too late (why exactly are human beings still driving trains?). Sometimes the process doesn’t correctly account for alpha events (1 in a Large-N events that break the model) and require human interpretation.

      But make no mistake, we are all slaves to the silicon chip. Adapt to it or flee it at your own peril.

      • 0 avatar

        The problem is that the DMV process made an assumption about the maturity of the tech that was inaccurate.

        No, the problem is with the guilt-until-proven-innocent presumptions made by the agency.

        One has to identify himself prior to getting a license. If the state believes that it screwed up, for whatever reason, then the burden should be on the state to prove that the driver falsified his ID.

        One bad thing about doing business with government is the blatant double standard re: timeframes. When you need something, they take forever and are generally indifferent to your needs.

        But when they need something, then they want it yesterday and they penalize you if they don’t get it immediately. Go out of town for a couple of weeks, and that could make the difference between responding in time and in being late.

        Abuses of Godwin aside, the point of the article is accurate — they already checked for ID before they issued the license. So now, why does this nifty technology induce a form of amnesia that causes them to forget that they already conducted the due diligence? And more to the point, why should their amnesia become my problem? I’m a taxpayer, not the enemy.

      • 0 avatar


        You’re grossly over simplifying computers. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean they are intrinsically good or will become good. They’re tools no more, no less. A tool is only as good as how it is used.

        As pch101 and aristurtle pointed out, the major problem isn’t necessarily that they are undeveloped (they are) but rather how they are being USED.

        Pch101 pointed out the deployment makes the false assumption that we are guilty until proven innocent.

        aristurtle pointed out that as the database grows the greater inaccuracy in the form of false positives.

        Increasing sophistication of the software will not over come these two fundamental problems.

      • 0 avatar

        “But make no mistake, we are all slaves to the silicon chip. Adapt to it or flee it at your own peril.”

        As a computerman, I feel rather differently about this. I control the silicon. I don’t control what idiots do with it, however.

    • 0 avatar

      I wished they would scrutinize voter rolls and id cards this well. As if.

  • avatar

    I am not sure all the German/Nazi references are required.

  • avatar

    All this, and yet some Nigerian slug can and did board a plane on using false I.D!

    Who’s the enemy here? Us!

    • 0 avatar

      And the American authorities were warned about the “Nigerian slug”.
      And the “Nigerian slug” bought a one-way ticket.
      And the “Nigerian slug” had no luggage.
      And the “Nigerian slug” allegedly didn’t have any papers – passport etc.
      Of course, “Nigerian slugs” don’t have to go to the DMV to get a drivers license.

    • 0 avatar

      What exactly is a Nigerian slug?

    • 0 avatar

      To be precise, I believe Zackman was referring to
      Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
      “The underwear bomber” who boarded a plane in Africa and flew to Detroit (through Amsterdam).
      His identity was poor. His circumstances were questionable. His name was on a security watchlist. And yet he was allowed to board a plane to the US.

  • avatar

    What have you done to the world politician?
    You separate brother from brother, like a magician.
    People are starving but you take their picture from the satellite,
    Isn’t that right?
    When I cast my vote it fell into a moat
    Of red tape and bureaucracy.
    So I call you on the phone you’re never ever home
    I have to leave a message on the 30-second metal machine.

    I work from 9 until my mind stops thinkin’
    I take a beating but I keep on tickin’.
    The auto teller says ‘sorry you can’t get your cash today’
    What did you say?
    When I punched in for the Green, a note came on the screen
    And suddenly my card disappeared.
    Now my rent is due today, so how I’m gonna pay?
    I must be going crazy ’cause I’m talkin’ to a metal machine (bad bad dream).

    I used to have a job, pulled a lever and a knob
    Barely kept the clothes on my back.
    So I tried to get ahead, I got laid off instead
    The foreman said I’m sorry we replaced you with a metal machine.
    I wound up on the streets with nothing much to eat
    I had to get myself off the ground.
    And now I’m back in school, to learn about the rules.
    If I wanna play I got to learn about the metal machine (metal dream).

    c 1986 music and lyrics by Jon Gibson

  • avatar

    It’s a good thing I’m weird lookin’.

  • avatar

    For those of you who think driving is a privilege I don’t understand the anger. After all he was not being denied a right or entitlement. Those who think the man should have been afforded some sort of substantive due process must be veering dangerously close to the notion that driving is a right.

  • avatar

    We all know there are businesses that are too big to fail – and should be cut down to size so they can fail without much harm. It is long past time to look at government – at all levels – the same way. DHS, under the megalomaniacal leadership of Janet Napolitano, should simply be abolished. From TSA’s sorry record to grants provided to organizations like the MA DMV which apparently lacks the competence to assess and use this ‘technology’, DHS has an unparalleled track record.

    ps – Please note that I did not refer to Napolitano as HeimatsicherheitsdienstGruppenFuehrer. Just too damn long and hard to spell.

  • avatar

    Do the math!!!

    If MA has 4.5 million drivers, and licences last 4 years (I am guessing, I do not live there) then DMV does on average 4326 renewals a day if they work 5 days a week.

    If they also issue 1500 revocation letters a day, then their system is horribly unreliable.

    I assume this facial recognition test is not the only grounds for revocation, but still 1500 revocations a day of any/all kinds is excessive, and perhaps something that warrants its own TTAC article.

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