Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

A defense attorney & PI who also happen to be writers

Here’s Looking at You Kid: Facial Recognition Software

Posted by Writing PIs on June 19, 2013

Do You Drive in the U.S.?  Your Image Is in a Facial Recognition Database

driver-license-cardIf you have a driver’s license in the U.S., your driver’s license photo is already stored in a law enforcement database. According to sources such as CBS Money Watch, this database contains over 120 million searchable photographs, of which Americans’ drivers’ license photos are a subset. What kind of information can be culled from a driver’s license and associated driving history records?  A person’s home address, employer, social security number, height, weight, speeding tickets, car accidents, warrants for failures to appear on any driving-related offenses,  DUI and drug offenses…and more.

This database is of course a boon in identifying terrorists, criminals, accomplices and suspects.  But is it possible that the facial recognition software in this database might analyze a blurry, badly lighted surveillance image and mistakenly align the pixels of a suspect’s face to yours?  Or could the algorithm review your driver’s license photo and link it to another person’s driver’s license photo, saying you are both actually the same person, who is a suspect for committing identify fraud?

Yes.

A Man Is Mistakenly Identified for Fraud

In 2011, John Gass was identified by a facial recognition software program as a suspect for fraud. Out of the blue, he received a letter from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles informing him he could no longer drive his car because his driver’s license had been revoked. After many phone calls and a hearing with Registry officials, Gass learned his face had been identified by an anti-terrorism facial recognition database as being a fraud, more specifically an individual who was using multiple driver’s licenses for the purpose of committing fraud.  Gass had never committed fraud, hadn’t had a speeding ticket in years — his only “crime” was that he looked like someone else.

Gass then had to prove his identity in another hearing by showing such items as his social security card and birth certificate. Interestingly enough, the other man who the computer said Gass looked like, had already proven his identity, which left Gass holding the identity bag, so to speak, and he was asked to produce yet more documents showing other identifying information such as his address. The Registry informed him it was his burden to clear up the confusion, and that their protecting the public far outweighed any inconvenience Gass or anyone else might have clearing up any mis-identification problems.

According to an article about Gass’s facial mis-recognition case in The Boston Globe, he’s angry his license was revoked without even a hearing.  Because his work depends on his ability to drive, he also lost wages until he cleared his identity.  “No one is angry about the work they have to do to track fraud,”Gass said, “but once they saw the error, even the words sorry would go a long way. But I got nothing.  The overwhelming attitude was they couldn’t care less.’’

How Many States Allow Law Enforcement to Access This Database?

sheriffThe number varies.  According to The Boston Globe article mentioned above, at least 34 states.  In a more recent Time article, 26 states. Currently, most police officers do not need a warrant to run a person’s photo through the facial recognition database — all they need is a legitimate reason.  Oregon, Washington, New York and eight other states restrict police access to the database, and California does not currently have a facial recognition system in place.

One can only hope the facial recognition software doesn’t review a grainy, blurry surveillance camera image of a homicide suspect and decides it looks like you. Or me.

On the other hand, facial recognition software didn’t connect the CCTV images of the suspects in the recent Boston bombings to their identities.  Instead, people who had witnessed the suspects at the scene of the incident identified them.  Something we’ve learned in our business is that sometimes the old tried-and-true ways are the best ways.

Glasses That Prevent Your Face From Being Identified…Some of the Time

In an article posted today in Gizmodo, Japan’s National Institute of Informatics has developed a pair of glasses with seven LEDs that blasts near-infrared light to prevent facial characteristics being registered by facial recognition systems. However, these glasses don’t block cameras that are unaffected by infrared light.  Undoubtedly, there will be more feature-blocking products along this line.  Or maybe, like in the recent comic Private Eye by Marcos Martin and Brian K. Vaughan, people will view privacy as a sacred right and everyone dons a mask-like identity (to download a copy of this pay-what-you-want comic, click here).

Have a great week, Writing PIs

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