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July 16, 2012

Vermont DMV To Use Facial Recognition Software On All New Driver's License Photos and IDs

Operatorg-1The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) confirmed this week that it plans to upgrade its database to enable the use of facial recognition technology on all newly issued driver's licenses and state identification cards. The DMV says the upgrades to its photo-capture workstations are designed to crack down on identity fraud. However, civil libertarians warn that the capture and storage of such biometric data, which are unique to each individual, move Vermont another step closer to a full-time surveillance state.

"Facial recognition software offers the most promise to ensuring that a person is not using another person's information to obtain a license/ID card nor has multiple identities within our database," explains Michael Smith, the DMV's director of operations, in an email query response to Seven Days. "The software focuses on facial features that aren't easy to alter. Using sophisticated mathematics, it measures characteristics such as the distance between pupils, mouth size and shape of facial features."

The new technology, which is tentatively scheduled for implementation by late fall, costs $900,000 and is being paid for entirely by federal funds. Once implemented, Smith says, the system will compare each driver's license or ID card photo issued that day with photos already in the DMV's database. If potential matches are detected, the system will flag them for human review by the department's Criminal Investigators Unit.

The DMV director also claims that Vermont's database will not be linked to databases in other states or the federal government, nor will it be used to identify people for other law enforcement purposes, such as apprehending those with outstanding criminal warrants or people on the federal no-fly list.

But Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont expresses grave doubts that the federal government would cover the entire expense of such a valuable homeland security tool and expect nothing in return. As he puts it, "That just doesn't pass the sniff test.

"This is a major step in a much bigger and braver new world," Gilbert adds. "This is the first I've heard of facial recognition software being used by anyone in government in Vermont." 

Specifically, Gilbert is concerned about what rules, if any, the DMV has adopted to govern how all that biometric information is used, including how long the data is stored, who has access to it and with whom it can be shared. He points to the British government's significant investment in facial recognition technology in recent years as part of its ongoing efforts to fight terrorism. In London, for example, the software is linked to myriad surveillance cameras around the city and can be used to identify where people are traveling at any given time.

Gilbert is also skeptical that this new system will be used strictly for countering ID fraud through the DMV. He likens the inevitable "mission creep" of facial recognition software to Vermont's prescription drug monitoring system, where the stated goal was to provide better health care for Vermonters by ensuring they're not abusing opiates.

"Next thing you know," he says, "the cops want to use it to catch drug dealers."

Vermont is by no means the first state to adopt facial recognition technology for its driver's license database. The software is being sold to the Vermont DMV by MorphoTrust USA of Billerica, Mass., which claims it's also being used on 80 percent of all driver's licenses issued in the United States, as well as all U.S. passports and passport cards.

According to the company's website, it works with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and various state and federal agencies on document authentication, data verification, and the capture and storage of other biometrics, such as iris and fingerprint data. MorphoTrust also operates a nationwide network of more than 1200 service centers that offer "a wide range of identity-related services such as enrollment and background vetting."

Image courtesy of the Vermont DMV.

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