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Robb Jeffries, Forum News Service, Published June 29 2013

The new fingerprint? Use of facial recognition technology varies by state

GRAND FORKS – In recent years, when North Dakotans go to get their driver’s license pictures taken, they’re asked to take off their glasses because the state’s facial-recognition software requires them to do so.

More and more states, North Dakota and Minnesota among them, are using driver’s license and identification cards to compile databases of residents’ faces that, when used with facial recognition technology, are the photographic equivalent of fingerprinting.

Civil liberties advocates say they worry about how the technology will be used.

“If you got a high-resolution photo of people at a political rally, the technology could be used to keep track of who is there,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union. “These are things the government should not be keeping track of.”

Using the technology to detect identification fraud – something Stanley said is an acceptable government use of facial recognition – is used by both Minnesota and North Dakota. But using an ID database and facial recognition software to identify people involved in a criminal investigation requires more care.

“We have unfortunately seen some law enforcement agencies around the country turn the technology away from crime and using to survey citizens,” Stanley said.

Doug Neville, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said Minnesota does not allow law enforcement agencies access to its ID database.

“That is something we have never done, and, as far as I know, there hasn’t been any discussion to start doing it,” Neville said.

A spokesperson from North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office declined to comment on the frequency or effectiveness of BCI’s use of facial recognition software.

ID fraud

Neville said DPS began a one-time “scrub,” or search, through about 11 million ID records in 2008 to detect license and ID fraud.

The software scanned focal points of each photo – eye, nose and mouth shape, for example – to find duplicate photos. It flagged nearly 1.3 million ID records as possibly fraudulent.

“Our staff reviewed each flagged record, and found that many of them were instances of twin siblings, or somebody getting married or divorced and changing their name,” Neville said.

Letters were sent in the mail to people holding IDs that were still under question after human review. To date, this has led to 9,481 identification cards being canceled by the state.

Neville said the department is considering renewing its license of the software for future use.

According to Glenn Jackson, driver’s license director with the North Dakota Department of Transportation, the state has also used ID photos to detect fraud. He said the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation has two agents that are allowed access to the photo ID system. Jackson also said that access “doesn’t prevent BCI from using it” for investigating active criminal cases, and he said BCI has used the system in the past.

Mass surveillance

Cautious and open use of facial technology is a key to Americans embracing this technology, according to Stanley.

“When it comes to investigating specific crimes (with facial recognition technology), there needs to be checks and balances,” he said. “This is something we see top to bottom in law enforcement, where they are making very profound decisions about what they do with this technology without input from the American public.”

Using facial recognition technology – and using it on state ID records – could open the door to mass surveillance, Stanley said.

“Everybody is required to go to the DMV and get a license or non-license ID to fully participate in the American life,” he said. “Americans have always resisted a national ID system, and Congress has never voted for one. That is a very, very powerful tool.”

Stanley said the ACLU’s big fear is that governmental us of photo IDs and facial recognition technology could make a “mass tracking system” for individuals, enabling government agencies to keep tabs on attendees at events focused on politics, religion or social issues.

Accuracy issues

Morpho, the company that produces the software used by the North Dakota state government, said on its website that it is “quite improbable” that facial recognition will “achieve the same levels of precision” as fingerprint recognition in the near future.

Some factors that can hinder proper identification include facial expressions, angle of the photo and low photo quality, the website said.

Jackson said North Dakota’s software best recognizes facial features in head-on photos, and that using the current technology for large-scale surveillance would not be feasible.

“The system we have is very basic,” Jackson said. “It’s not like that ‘NCIS’ stuff where you can bring up half a cheek and know who it is.”

Stanley warns that irresponsible use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement officials could lead to privacy violations.

“When the technology is expanded to take photos of people ‘in the wild,’ it’s far less accurate and there’s a danger that some people might find themselves under law enforcement’s microscope for no real reason,” he said.