U.S. Citizens’ Photos Used for Facial Recognition Dragnet

In the future, will every minor law become vigorously and effectively enforced once it becomes technically possible to do so using face recognition technology?

By Cliff Roth

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Video/Imaging DesignWire
(11/17/2009 6:00:49 PM)

For those who worry about the ever encroaching power of “Big Brother” as privacy withers away, here’s another new twist: Driver’s license photos are now being used as a vast database for the FBI (the U.S. national police) to use facial recognition software to identify and locate criminal suspects.

As one critic put it in the Associated Press account of the story FBI uses facial-recognition technology on DMV photos , it’s as if the entire adult population is being involuntarily hauled in for a police line-up.

Technically, these photographs are being provided voluntarily by U.S. citizens, but there’s one big catch: If you don’t allow the state agencies that issue drivers’ licenses to take your photograph, you’re not allowed to drive. And even those who don’t own or use cars need the licenses, because they’re also widely used for ID to satisfy liquor laws and to gain access to buildings and other faux-secure areas where visitors must sign in.

The FBI — the national police agency of the U.S. — says they’ve just started this practice recently (after abandoning earlier technology in 2002 for the Winter Olympics), and that it’s applied on a state-by-state basis due to the nature of the drivers’ license photo databases (which are organized by the 50 states.) But they also say it’s cheap and easy, which leads one to think they will quickly develop whatever legal and technical mechanisms are needed to create a national database of drivers’ license photos which can be readily accessed for face recognition.

Most people might agree this is all fine for catching a murderer — as in the widely publicized story, in which a man in North Carolina was accused of two homicides. But what about using it to catch someone who failed to pay a speeding ticket many years ago? Or someone who got a ticket for walking a dog without a leash? Or for jaywalking, or littering?

Democracy has always depended on a “gray area” of the law — an understanding that some laws need to be enforced more seriously than others. The system of separate national, state and local governments has served this gray area well — someone wanted on minor charges in one state or locality could move somewhere else and essentially get away with petty crimes. Sometimes this may even seem perfectly fair, due to variations in laws from place to place. What’s illegal in one place may be perfectly legal in another — examples include homosexual marriage, marijuana possession, cell phone use in cars, gambling, cigarette smoking in public spaces, and more.

But beyond the sheer loss of privacy lies another, different question: Down the road in the future, will every law become vigorously and effectively enforced once it becomes technically possible to do so?

Under President George W. Bush, Americans became used to the idea that their audio phone calls and Internet activities could be under surveillance by the government, without any court oversight. Schemes that use video cameras to read license plates as ordinary vehicles enter or leave a city also became commonly accepted. Now, under President Barack Obama, police suspicion of ordinary citizens is being extended to drivers’ license photos.

And if you’re contemplating the criminal life, remember this the next time you have your driver’s license picture taken — you might want to wear a disguise!