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Published May 06 2012

North Dakota using facial-recognition software when taking driver’s license photos

FARGO – Before Randy Wilson stepped in front of the camera at the DMV last Thursday, he was told to remove his glasses for his driver’s license photo.

Wilson, from Fargo, didn’t think much of it. He figured it was probably because the camera’s flash might cause a glare in the photo.

As it turns out, though, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

For the last two years, North Dakota has been using facial-recognition software as a way to prevent driver’s license fraud. Drivers like Wilson are asked to remove their glasses because the frames make it difficult for the software to identify a face.

While the concept might seem like something out of a science fiction novel, it’s actually pretty basic, said Glenn Jackson, director of the Driver’s License Division of the Department of Transportation.

The goal of the program, Jackson said, is to prevent a person from having more than one license. The software compares a new driver’s license photo with old photos in the database to make sure that a driver isn’t in the system under a different name.

“We’re just striving to make sure that in our driver’s license database, there’s only one license per person,” he said.

Jackson wasn’t sure exactly how North Dakota was affected by identification fraud prior to the implementation of the program, but nationally identity fraud cost Americans more than $1.5 billion in 2011, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“We didn’t know, do we have a problem or not?” Jackson said. “So, we thought the best thing was to put in a program that can identify fraud, and we can ensure going forward that we do not have that problem.”

Jackson cited 30-some cases of fraud in North Dakota caught by the system in the past two years where someone has tried to have more than one driver’s license.

In those cases, a report is then forwarded to the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation for follow-up, Jackson said.

As a result, several people have ended up in jail, and several others are currently being pursued with federal fraud charges, he said.

The software’s not entirely foolproof. There are cases, Jackson said, such as with twins or family members, when the system flags photos as being a match even when they are not the same person.

When that happens though, a review of the driver’s record and signature is usually enough to determine the identity of that person, he said.

Because of potential privacy concerns related to the program, only the DOT has access to the more than 1 million photos used by the software.

“We’re always concerned with privacy,” Jackson said. “The photo in the photo database is, by state statute, not public. It’s not something people can access.”

In addition to North Dakota, Jackson estimated that more than 35 other states, including Minnesota, use similar facial recognition software to combat fraud.

Minnesota doesn’t check real-time photos like North Dakota. Instead, the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul has been in the process of reviewing nearly 11 million photos from a 2008 database, according to Driver’s Services Director Joan Kopcinski.

So instead of checking new photos when a driver comes in to renew their license, Minnesota is basing its fraud investigations on the photos already in the database.

“It’s based on historical data and historical pictures,” she said.

There are plans, though, for Minnesota to eventually implement a system similar to North Dakota’s.

“North Dakota is ahead of the game in the one-to-one match,” Kopcinski said. “We hope to get there soon.”

Though North Dakota’s program has been in place for two years, Jackson admits that it’s probably not something people know about until they actually go in to the DMV.

That’s how it was for Wilson last week, who was surprised, but not concerned, to find out about it.

“I have no problem with it,” he said, as he waited for his license to be printed. “I’m not running from anyone; I have nothing to hide.”

“This is the age we live in,” he added. “You gotta live it.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535