Face-recognition app revokes driver's license for looking like the wrong guy

Expanding biometric security apps aren't accurate enough according to privacy activists

A suburban Boston man is suing the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles after his license was revoked because – according to the suit – his drivers' license photo was flagged by an antiterrorism screening application because he looks like another driver.

According to the Boston Globe, John H. Gass, 41, of Natick, Mass. got a notice April 5 saying his license had been revoked after an application used by the Registry to scan photos to detect fraudsters with two, three or four identities, tagged his photo as suspicious.

He found out after talking to the Registry that his photo was not being used, but did look enough like another driver's photo that the software flagged it by mistake.

Since the system was installed in 2006 with $1.5 million from the Department of Homeland Security, it has prompted more than 1,000 investigations by the State Police, according to the Registry, though the agency didn't provide any information on how often the application misidentifies suspects or how many of those 1,000 investigations had any substance to them.

The software maps faces according to thousands of data points and compares them to similar patterns from other images in the database; a high enough recognition score gets a photo kicked into a special queue where Registry workers check the pictures and driving records of the drivers involved, according to a State Police spokesman.

Investigating drivers flagged by the application got 1,860 licenses revoked and helped State Police get 100 arrest warrants issued for identify fraud, the spokesman said.

It took Gass three phone calls and a hearing at the Department of Transportation -- where produced a birth certificate, Social Security Card and confirmation of his home address -- to get the license reinstated.

Although he didn't open the letter until April 5, his license had been suspended since April 1, and was eventually reinstated April 14.

Gass is asking for damages and for an injunction to keep the Registry from treating other drivers in a similarly callous way.

"The overwhelming attitude was they couldn't care less," Gass told the Globe.

That's a frequent reaction in stories about the Mass. Registry of Motor Vehicles, but usually the problem is botched paperwork, long waits or poor service.

Having the agency identify you as a possible suspect, decide you're guilty and mete out a punishment, then notify you afterward by snail mail, based on an image-recognition application's ability to confirm that you're not who you ray you are?

That's a pretty clear reversal of the whole presumed-innocent suggestion from that Constitution thingy, based on the testimony of something you could probably fool by wearing a different pair of glasses or letting your eyebrows grow out too far.

DHS is really proud of the facial-recognition specs it developed and built into the software.

It's also proud at the role biometric security evidence played in convicting Charles Heard of murder in California in January, the first case in which facial-recognition data was allowed in court.

DHS and the software have taken fire for problems with accuracy from the time it was put into place. They continue to take criticism from privacy activists who say facial recognition is too imprecise to rely on for evidence and that it's used improperly, to scan faces in a football stadium hoping to find one that looked criminal, for example, or similar applications used in casinos to recognize the faces of known cheaters.

Not to mention Facebook.

Automated security screening is great an admirable idea, but only when your automated security's screens work right and it hands the ultimate decision off to humans who are actually willing to check to see if they're right before lowering the boom.

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