The Washington Post had a story last week about Virginia's new "no smiling" rule at the Commonwealth's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) when driver's receiving or renewing their licenses have their required photograph taken. The reason: facial recognition software.
According to the Post, “DMV officials say the smile ban is for a good cause. The agency would like to develop a facial recognition system that could compare customers' photographs over time to prevent fraud and identity theft. ‘The technology works best when the images are similar,’ said DMV spokeswoman Pam Goheen. ‘To prepare for the possibility of future security enhancements, we're asking customers to maintain a neutral expression.’ ”
So, no more toothy smiles.
In fact, the software, which apparently can’t tell between photos of the same person’s face smiling and not, can however tell if a person is showing too much tooth: the new software, the Post writes, “is programmed to reject attempts at exuberance or human warmth.”
“It will send an error message if it detects a non-neutral expression," the DMV spokeswoman said.
I wonder what the error message is: "Subject shows too much human warmth"?
The no smile policy is also used in at least three other states: Arkansas, Indiana, and Nevada.
After the story came out, the DMV wrote an overwrought letter to the Post saying that the story was “an unacceptable, opinion-laden cheap shot” and that “readers deserve unbiased reporting.”
What was biased? Well, nothing that I read, really. But the letter did add some clarity to the DMV's new policy.
“This technology works best when the photos are similar -- for example, when a customer has a neutral expression in both photos vs. a neutral expression in one photo and a smile in another. Using technology to ensure matching photos, the DMV can further reduce the risks of fraud and identity theft.”
Great, except for one small issue: the facial recognition technology is not being used.
“The DMV does not use the technology today. However, by capturing neutral-expression photos today, the agency will be in a position to implement photo comparison sooner rather than later, if funding and authorization are granted for the technology.”
In fact, it is unclear exactly how the DMV expects to use the technology to stop fraud and id theft, other than when a person tries to illegally renew a license. But shouldn’t all that documentation which is going to be required by the REAL ID Act supposed to accomplish this anyway, and if not, why are we bothering with the providing all that documentation anyway?
I might also be inclined to take the DMV’s desire to stop id theft and fraud a bit more seriously if both the state and local governments' of Virginia was truly interested in stopping id theft and fraud in the first place. For instance, the state has gone out of its way to silence privacy advocate B.J. Ostergren, who has been pointing out that Virginia state and county governments routinely post social security and other private data on public websites.
You can read more about Ostergren troubles beginning here, here, here and follow them up at Ostergren's website The Virginia Watchdog here.
Finally, I guess if you are criminal, do remember to smile for any cameras that might be snapping your photo.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.