Facial Recognition and Driver Licenses: Identification or Data Collection?

Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Blogger

facial-recoRecently the FBI’s “Next Generation Identification” project was funded by congress to bring significantly enhanced identification and recognition capabilities to government agencies.  The system relies for the most part on individual data collected from local law enforcement and state departments of motor vehicles or licensing, that is fingerprint, booking photos, and most recently driver license photographs.

With the advent of greater storage, computational, and recognition technologies the ease of facial recognition has increased.  Coupled with the impetus on the federal level, reportedly, to identify terrorists and criminals the technology is now being utilized under a fundamentally different approach.

Identification data has historically been collected for decades by local law enforcement agencies and jails and forwarded to the U.S. Government.  Most of this has traditionally been fingerprint cards.  The cards formerly were classified by general fingerprint characteristics and then a paper hardcopy was kept on file.  The AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) later enhanced this ability by permitting individual fingerprints to be both categorized uniquely and stored electronically.

The main limitation on whether a latent fingerprint submitted for analysis was whether the matching person had been previously fingerprinted either for a crime, had applied for a security clearance, for a position as an employee of a government agency, or had been arrested for a criminal offense meeting the FBI’s submission requirements.  Other factors are a measure of time and quality of the latent print submitted.

When the primary identification was persons’ fingerprints it was effectively impossible to identify an individual who was merely in public view.  The ability is now there by simply photographing the face of this individual.  But rather than collecting fingerprints, of certain security cleared individuals or arrestees, all persons subject to having a driver license or state ID card now are to be gathered.

One facet that needs to be understood is that there is a general disconnect between federal and state agencies.  Presently, the federal government only directly collects photographs on individuals when they apply for a passport, an immigration card, military, government employees, and a few others the general public is not subject to requirements of.  Yet, the individual largely has photographs collected by state departments of motor vehicles or licensing.

Another example of a disconnect was state governments did not often collect social security numbers for driver license data that the federal government had.  The federal government mandated the states collect social security numbers for each driver license applicant.  This had an auxiliary (or intentional depending on opinion) benefit of states being able to have social security information for parents absconding on child support and provided linking information for the federal government to state licensing data.

State governments have comparative advantage and resources to collect driver’s photographs the federal government lacks this but has vast funds and resources to process these photographs.

Looking at the laws of one state as an example, Washington provides for a facial recognition matching system to be operated by the Department of Licensing.

Pertinent excerpts of the subject code (RCW 46.20.037) are as follows:

(1) The department may implement a facial recognition matching system for drivers’ licenses, permits, and identicards. Any facial recognition matching system selected by the department must be used only to verify the identity of an applicant for or holder of a driver’s license, permit, or identicard to determine whether the person has been issued a driver’s license, permit, or identicard under a different name or names.

(4) Results from the facial recognition matching system:

(a) Are not available for public inspection and copying under chapter 42.56 RCW;

(b) May only be disclosed when authorized by a court order;

(c) May only be disclosed to a federal government agency if specifically required under federal law;

The purported reasons for gathering facial data for all persons applying for a driver license or identification card is to ensure that an individual does not fraudulently apply for a driver license assuming a false name or identity.

Yet one could ask if there was more to this system than meets the eye.

One system could instead require citizens to provide a biometric retina scan, unique to each individual, to ensure the person applying for or renewing a license is the intended applicant rather than a publicly recognizable datum such as their entire face.  Would the retinal scan suffice for the purposes of driver license security or could it be more all-encompassing?

We could look at what a state agency is required to comply with to obtain a recognition metric: a court order.  A court order would have to comply with a narrow tailoring, specific to an individual for a specific purpose as required by any other court order such as those for search warrants and the like.  Yet, with regard to the federal government it is construed broadly where the requirement is simply “federal law.”  Could this be that the requirement is the United States Code or could it be administrative laws such as agency rules?  Under the Revised Code of Washington it is open-ended because the federal law can simply be enacted to require “All licensing photographs of all persons must be submitted to a designated federal repository.”

A short primer on facial recognition might be helpful to understand what is involved.  An image of a face is sent through an algorithm to locate certain aspects of a human face, such as proportionality of eyes to nose size, color of eyes, facial structure and such.  This data is hashed into a string of data that represents the structure of this face.  This creates a framework where using other matching algorithms can be used to compare a subject face to a database of hashes to determine probability of match between persons having similar hashes.  The complexity of which can grow with time and accuracy will improve, even accounting for noise such as blurriness of the photograph, and various positions and attitudes of the image.

There might also be differing encoding systems that could produce hashes or data types.  Using different systems could produce artifacts between each other where a person might match one set of criteria but not another in a different system.  How is the system going to protect the individual against false positives or negatives?

As media and data collection increase the accuracy and prevalence of systems will increase sharply as Moore’s Law has shown through computational power generally.  The technology will eventually come to fruition where a federal agency can take images, either as video or digital photographic in nature and place these into facial recognition software for quick identification of each person in a crowd.

It is rather easily understood the system is being created that can have the ability to take gigapixel photographs of large crowds of people and identify nearly every person in the photo having their face visible to the photographer.  Is this something a person should have to be concerned with?  It can be argued does the government have a true interest in identifying each person in a crowd of persons, whatever lawful activity they might be engaging in?  Could this be a chilling effect?

The U.S. Secret Service routinely takes extremely detailed photographs of crowds of people who attend speeches and events their protected persons are hosting, such as presidential addresses and such.  The service attempts to scan these crowds for persons who have made threats to presidents or provide security risks.  That same practice can be greatly enhanced by the facial recognition system that can identify most of the persons in the images and analyze the names of who has attended and look for patterns with other events.

Our society is going to have to ask itself some fundamental questions on the role of government and how much citizens have liberty and privacy when our government has made a significant effort to obtain the likenesses of every person possible.  Do we as individuals want to be held to draconian standards where persons could be questioned for “why were you here” or “why were you talking with X”?

Formerly it was a common Hollywood movie saying to “round up the usual suspects”; that is criminal elements likely to be involved in a particular crime.  Are we as citizens now collectively “the usual suspects” since we eventually can all be identified and tracked?  It will certainly be useful to apprehend actual criminals but watching the watchers is going to be more important as well.




47 thoughts on “Facial Recognition and Driver Licenses: Identification or Data Collection?”

  1. Raf, only marginally. I have read that the initial filter in FRS are the large, generally unalterable structures: cheekbones, jaw/chin and forehead size (between the depressions on either side of the face) and their relationship to each other. What one needs is good theatrical makeup that alters those sizes and the relationship among them. I don’t know if that’s true but intuitively it is. If you draw portraits the first thing you do is establish those relationships and shapes and then fill in the details.

    Good column Darren, welcome!

  2. nick and Nal,
    Can you contort your face to elude facial recognition? As long as you know you are being filmed?

  3. raff, You watch too many spy and drug cartel movies. But, you do bring up an interesting point as to how plastic surgery for the regular reasons will effect this. In Southern California half the women will be unrecognizable using facial recognition. It’s hard for regular folk not from SoCal to realize how much plastic surgery goes on there. About 70-80% the person looks hideous. I’m told men are an increasing clientele for face cutters. I pick out a few, but maybe I’m not looking close enough. I don’t want to give a dude the wrong idea. NTTAWWT!!

  4. raff,

    I think it’ll be even easier than that. A baseball cap, a pair of sunglasses, and a fake beard would confound most facial recognition systems. Facial recognition may be an effective tool, but only when no one knows it’s being used.

  5. Nal,
    Will the improvements in facial resolution increase business for plastic surgeons in order to defeat the spying technique?

  6. The current state-of-the-art facial recognition algorithms are rudimentary to the point of being useless, as shown in this NOVA program: Manhunt—Boston Bombers.

    However, as higher resolution images become commonplace, facial recognition will take off. Will disguises and masks become illegal? A scary prospect.

    Darren, a thought-provoking article.

  7. Robinh, As the saying goes, “You’re preaching to the choir.” Ralph Nader did an admirable job showing how the duopoly makes it nearly impossible for other candidates to have a chance. Most people yawned. The duopoly will not relinquish power and they will be ruthless is holding onto it. This has to come from the people. That’s why I have my quixotic mission of bringing it up whenever I see it appropriate. The sad thing is, many people who feel and think as we do, are staunch supporters of the duopoly. People fear fundamental change and are attracted to the status quo.

  8. @ Nick i always thought the reason they have black outted the other parties is exactly for that particular reason/ years ago up until the early 90’s i dare say we had at the very least 4-7 candidates from each party that could run for offices. and it perturbed and suprised me when no one and i mean no one noticed or complained that we are now allowed only 2 candidates both of whom are owned by the corporations and elites. it still amazes me that the people argue over whether obama or romney is best or worse for the country. NOT PEOPLE country. never once did it cross but a few of the people hindsight that both of them spew the same garbage just in different terms.

    It should have become common knowledge that once they passed NDAA and CISPA the next steps were facial recognition but then again we’re talking about a people dumbed down deliberately so that they can not think for themselves anymore. we’re talking about a people who have given up their humanity willingly for this so called technology supposedly designed to keep us safe when the truth is. its designed to keep the enslaved in check and make sure the elites do not have to work to hard to find out who their mind control isnt working on!!!!

  9. Our nation is run by traitors to the Constitution.
    It is time for a Revolution.
    It is time to drive the fascists from our government.

    “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” James Madison

  10. Darren, Firstly, bravo. A welcome even handed post on an important subject.

    The technology will continue to improve. The use will grow exponentially. Hopefully we all agree on that. Will the abuse grow @ the same rate? Unless fundamental changes are made in our duopoly political system, then the answer is, yes. We have two parties who have NO DIFFERENCE in the abuse of intelligence gathering. More parties, more choices, will dilute the concentrated power and make abuse less likely. That’s the best one can hope for. Knowledge is power. Truly smart people, whether moral or immoral, understand this on a profound level. It is not only the govt. who can abuse this. As I’ve said, it is much easier than most folks would ever believe for people outside the govt. to access sensitive information. “A chain is as strong as it’s weakest link.” And, I can tell you from my experience, accessing info from govt. officials, there are MANY weak links in a bureaucracy.

  11. This is no longer a government of the people, it’s them and us. They call Mr. Snowden a terrorist for telling the citizens that the government is spying on them. The I.R.S. is targeting certain groups against fiscal irresponsibility. And so on and so on

  12. OS,

    True that. The number one rule is “the only constant is change”, followed closely by “expect the unexpected”. Somewhere a little further down that informal list is “machines break”, which also applies.

  13. G.Mason

    The bill of rights has been in danger since the passing of the Patriot Act

  14. M. Murry
    Defeat is Victory. Of course it is. American exceptionalism you know.

  15. lexmanifesta:

    And since the “war” has no achievable objective or defensible rationale other than its own perpetuation, it does not matter how things actually transpire on the “battlefield” that no American knows about or experiences directly. Hence, after the famous “victories” in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, and Afghanistan, etc., we must add the Fourth Slogan of the Property Party:


  16. Darren,
    Nice post. If anyone thinks that they can follow, let alone comment on this blog, and not be actively monitored/followed by NSA/CIA/TrapWire/Echelon/Carnivore/Total Information Awareness etc. they are incredibly naive. Free thinkers, critical thinkers, libertarian thinkers, they are the most dangerous individuals to those that find it necessary to collect the type and amount of information that extirpates privacy.

    I seriously doubt that I am the only one that has self censored a comment on this Blog due to concerns that the Uber Hoover security state might come knocking at my door wondering what exactly is on my mind. Burrr, it is indeed getting chilly in America.

    “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound
    that Winston made, above the level of a low whisper, would be picked
    up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision
    which the metal plaque commanded he could be seen as well as
    heard. There was of course no way way of knowing whether you
    were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what
    system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was
    guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all
    all the time. . . . You had to live–did live, from habit that became
    instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard
    and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

    George Orwell, 1984 p.6&7

    And remember: WAR IS PEACE
    IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, and my personal favorite,

  17. The reason for that facial recognition stuff:

    “… to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.” — 1984

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