Friday, December 7, 2007

DMV Technology

Identify Yourself
New Connecticut DMV technologies cause worries
Hartford Advocate Feb. 10, 2005

On Jan. 11, Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Gary DeFilippo sent out a media advisory concerning steps the DMV is taking to reform the agency. Two bullet points briefly addressed potentially troubling technological changes the agency is undertaking.

The first said the DMV would begin performing "high-tech match-up[s] of faces in its license file to determine if the same face is on a license or if a different one is there." The second said a new document-authentication "proofing process using state-of-the-art technology will be used to determine the validity of passports, out-of-state driver's licenses, military identifications, etc."

The aim is to "combat both the issuance of licenses in criminal matters of identity theft and to illegal aliens or those without the proper immigration and naturalization documentation."

DMV spokesman Bill Seymour confirmed that the DMV is seriously upgrading its hardware.

"We're going to do a couple different kinds of face match-ups. The first kind of face match-up is where we compare your face now to your face when you came in the last time to have your renewal," Seymour explained. "The next match up we're going to do is faces to addresses in our database. That way we can make sure we have one face for one address and not the same face for multiple addresses."

Viisage, a Littleton, Mass., security technologies firm, is supplying the DMV with face-recognition technology (FRT). Viisage has manufactured Connecticut driver's licenses since 2002 -- presumably the license photo library can be easily navigated.

Proponents of FRT believe a face can identity a person as accurately as a fingerprint or a DNA sample. Viisage will provide the DMV with biometric technology that allows for searches and matches of faces in databases.

Viisage is one of several companies at the forefront of biometric technology. According to the website of the Biometric Consortium, a U.S government-funded group that records and studies the technology's development, "biometrics are automated methods of recognizing a person based on a physiological or behavioral characteristic. Among the features measured are face, fingerprints, hand geometry, handwriting, iris, retinal, vein, and voice."

Biometric technology digitizes and analyzes faces, voices and other identifying features. Then the data is converted into a numeric code that becomes, to a computer, as unique and instantly recognizable as a Social Security number.

In theory, biometric face-matching can be instantaneous and precise. A computer can read a line of code and match it to another line. The problem is that biometric technology currently seems about as exact a science as phrenology; it failed in three of the most public tests it has faced.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans wanted science-fiction solutions to problems caused by terrorists whose weapons are barely above the level of cavemen, and were willing to sacrifice privacy for them. Biometric technology became white hot. Stock prices skyrocketed for companies involved with biometrics. The first day of stock trading following the Sept. 11 attacks saw a 90 percent increase in the value of Viisage's share price.

Shortly after Sept. 11, Viisage CEO Tom Colatosti notoriously claimed that biometric face-recognition technology could have been a factor in preventing the Sept. 11 attacks. "If our technology had been deployed, the likelihood is [the terrorists] would have been recognized," he told a group of reporters.

But even before Sept. 11, the United States was pushing biometrics technology really hard on both the federal and state levels. Tests of the technology, before and after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, did not turn out very well.

In a summer 2001 experiment in Ybor City, an entertainment district in Tampa, Florida, the whole city was put under surveillance. Hidden video cameras recorded activities in public spaces like open-air shopping malls and outdoor restaurants. Law enforcement officials used biometric technology provided by a New Jersey company called Visionics (which would later fold into Identix). The experiment was fraught with false positives. The most dramatic is the story of Ron Milliron. According to the St. Petersburg Times:

"Rob Milliron, then 32, wound up on a surveillance camera one day while at lunch in Ybor City. Tampa police used his photo to demonstrate the system to local news media. A woman in Tulsa, Okla., saw his picture and fingered him as her ex-husband who was wanted on felony child neglect charges. Three police officers showed up at Milliron's construction job site, asking if he was a wanted man. Turns out he had never married, never had kids, never even been to Oklahoma."

The Ybor City program was shut down in August 2003. Ultimately, no arrests were made because of the surveillance. Local cops deemed the experiment a failure.

"It was of no benefit to us, and it served no real purpose," Capt. Bob Guidara of the Tampa police told the Associated Press after the experiment was shuttered.

In 2002 Viisage took part in a Super Bowl biometric experiment, scanning the faces of people at the game, allegedly looking for terrorists. At first, the experiment was deemed a modest success -- 19 suspects were fingered due to the technology. No arrests were made because of the surveillance, though.

Then, Viisage and rival security technology firm Identix went head-to-head in a study at Logan Airport that lasted from January to April of 2002. Working with a database of 40 employees, the competing companies tried to identify faces in the crowds. That test had a reported failure rate of 40 percent.

"This is a high-tech Band-Aid that's not going to make us any safer, and will give us a false sense of security," Barry Steinhardt, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Technology and Liberty, told the Boston Globe after the results of the Logan Airport tests came to light. "As someone who flew 100,000 miles last year, I don't want to risk my safety on this technology."

Applying biometric technology to photographs -- how the DMV is using the technology -- is likely to be a more accurate use of the approach than scanning faces in crowds. With photographs, particularly institutional identification photographs, the circumstances are far more controlled than in the case of videotaped people in a crowd. All the backgrounds are the same, faces are the same proportion and caught at the same angle. Crowd photography variables like lighting and shadows are eliminated.

However, judging from other reports on biometrics, there are still more factors to consider.

Last December, the New York Times reported that international passport guidelines advised people posing for passports that, "only closed-mouth, 'neutral' expressions will be allowed," so that they could be read by biometrics instruments. Throwing a bone to the irrepressibly cheerful, the guidelines state that a "smile with closed jaw is allowed, but is not preferred." So don't you dare smile with an open mouth unless you want the terrorists to win.

The assumption is that while faces change as people age, the mathematical value of their features stays fundamentally the same over time. Once the biometric features of the face are determined, the theory holds, they can be used as identification throughout an individual's life. Critics argue that this premise is fundamentally flawed, claiming that skin diseases and aging can throw biometric data out of whack.

In light of last year's scandals at the agency, few argue that the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles needed restructuring and reform. But it's not clear how much face-recognition technology and biometrics directly addresses those problems.

In August 2004, an employee at the Norwalk DMV was charged with accepting bribes in exchange for providing illegal immigrants with driver's licenses. Further investigations uncovered over 400 other fraudulent licenses issued by that employee in 2003 alone. Three DMV workers have been charged in connection with the investigation.

The scam the DMV employees worked was notably low-tech. The operation relied on corrupt insiders working at DMV offices and a lack of supervision of those employees. A high-tech scan of faces in a database provides for more accountability, as does the agency's implementation of biometric fingerprint-scanning systems for recording employee use of machines.

But still, the question of motivation lingers. Viisage provides identification work for six other states' DMVs. A recent Associated Press article listed Rhode Island, North Carolina, Delaware, Illinois, Oklahoma and another state that declined to be identified because of security concerns, as customers. Viisage also works on U.S. passports and, according to the Viisage website, provides services for the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, several city law enforcement agencies and, curiously, for Pakistan's national identification program.

Despite repeated inquiries to Viisage and the public relations firm that represents the company, I was not able to speak with anyone representing the company. As a result, I don't know whether Viisage maintains a central database of photographs and biometric data or if its clients create their own using Viisage's technology.

If Viisage controls the database, well, that's quite a bit of technology in the hands of a private company. If it doesn't, it's easy to imagine how several databases that share the same technology could be linked up.

Of course, Viisage is not the only company that works with biometrics or face-recognition technology, nor is it the largest. Firms such as Identix and Digimarc are also major players in biometric security.

Since Sept. 11, the idea of a national identification card and information database has been floated and rejected several times. All of these unconnected pools of centralized information, though, could easily be channeled together after a national crisis.