DMV uses biometrics to fight fraud, crime

    By Brian Crandall

    The state Division of Motor Vehicles -- where you get those great photos taken.

    But that license picture isn't just sitting in your wallet.

    It's also stored in a computer system.

    Tom Gallagher mans the Rhode Island DMV's facial recognition system. (Massachusetts has a program like this, too.)

    Investigators like Gallagher can use it to help police track down suspects. But it's mostly for the DMV to find identity fraud if a person is using his or her picture to get multiple IDs.

    Gallagher said that's just what one man did.

    "We got different names here," Gallagher said, looking at the results of a search.

    The computer system uses biometrics -- measurements of facial structure -- to find similar license photos.

    When there's suspicion of fraud, as in this case, Gallagher pulls up the license photo and the system finds the closest matches.

    The DMV said the three closest matches are all the same man, but he's using a couple of different pictures and names.

    So, what about the rest of us? Is your picture popping up in here?

    As an example: let's plug in Gene Valicenti.

    The results come back.

    No fake IDs here, but the closest match in the entire system is actually former NBC 10 sports reporter Harry Cicma.

    "It doesn't go by the color of your eyes or color of your skin or lip color. Nothing like that. Just biometrically the measurements of your face," Gallagher said.

    Gallagher said it's fairly easy to see if there is a direct match.

    But what if there's a close call? A question over true identity?

    Has your picture been matched with a suspect? Are you who you say you are?

    The DMV will ask you to prove it, so get your documents.

    "If you were innocent and it was 100 percent you, you would do these things, be more forthcoming," Gallagher said.

    Facial recognition programs make the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union nervous.

    "You have this situation where individuals are being flagged as someone they are not and the onus is on them to prove they are who they say they are because this computer, for whatever reason, has brought up their image," Hillary Davis of the ACLU said. "How well is this technology working? Is facial recognition software something that is accurate 100 percent of the time? I don't know, and my inclination is to say that it's not."

    A driver sued the Massachusetts registry, claiming he was mistaken for someone else.

    The Rhode Island DMV said it doesn't prosecute or suspend a license based on the computer results alone. It defends the program.

    "It's to actually help them safeguard their identity so nobody could come in and assume their identity with another likeness, with their information on a license or ID," Gallagher said.

    The ACLU raises a red flag when it comes to the government using a variety of new technologies, such as a proposal by the mayor of Providence to use a license plate scanner -- instead of people -- to enforce an overnight parking program.

    "Reduces error and will make the program more efficient," said David Ortiz, the mayor's spokesman.

    But the ACLU claims privacy could be at risk.

    "We don't understand or don't know what's happening with these pictures, how long the pictures are being stored," Davis said. "Because the scanners are owned by a private corporation, there's a big question over this corporation having access to this database."

    "We just simply feel that's not appropriate. And lastly, we just think it's one of those things that's unnecessary," Davis said.

    Why not use people instead of a scanner?

    "Well, this is much more efficient. It saves time. It saves money," Ortiz said.

    Ortiz said it won't cost people their privacy.

    "The data is used only for enforcement. The privacy of all our residents is very important to the city of Providence," Ortiz said.

    The scanner's already been used for several years to find people with unpaid parking tickets.

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