Drive time for facial recognition

Biometric technology catches on with DMVs, but privacy concerns slow broader reach

After a driver sits for a photo at the Illinois
Secretary of State office to renew a license,
officials use facial-recognition technology to
give the resulting image a close look.

First, state officials verify that the face
matches the images portrayed on previous
licenses issued under the driver's
name. The second, more
extensive run-through determines
if the same face appears on other
Illinois driver's licenses with different names.

Since starting the program in 1999, the
state has uncovered more than 5,000 cases of
multiple identity fraud, said Beth Langen, policy
and program division administrator at the
Illinois Secretary of State office. The state pays
Digimarc Corp. about 25 cents per license for
the service, she said.

"We are very pleased. It is a fraud for which
we have no other tool" to combat, Langen said.

About 40 percent of the nation's drivers are
set to undergo such facial-recognition database
checks when they renew their licenses in
20 states. It is just one sign that after years of
ups and downs, facial-recognition technology
in government agencies is gaining momentum
on several fronts.

Facial-image-matching applications have
been available for more than a decade but are
just beginning to attain widespread use in government.
Using captured facial images that are
adjusted for lighting, the technology extracts
data from the image ? such as the length of a
nose or a jaw line ? and uses an algorithm to
compare the data from one image to other

Facial recognition got a black eye when tested
at the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., in 2001.
Surveillance images of faces from the crowd
generated so many false positives that the test
was deemed a failure. Experts concede there
still are high error rates if facial recognition is
applied to images taken under less-than-ideal
conditions. That type of application also spurs
the greatest concern about privacy and civil
rights violations.

However, facial recognition is now considered
reliable in environments in which the
lighting, facial expression, angle of the head
and distance of the subject from the camera
can be controlled, and interference from hats,
sunglasses and such can be minimized. The
most recent test results announced in March
2007 by the National Institute of Standards
and Technology showed error rates of 1 percent
or less, a huge improvement compared
with previous tests.

Spending for 2008 on contracts related to facial recognition is estimated at $400 million,
said Peter Cheesman, a spokesman at
International Biometric Group, a consulting
firm in New York. That includes $254 million
for civilian agencies, $68 million
for law enforcement and about
$75 million for surveillance and
access control, he said.

State driver's license bureaus
are in the forefront. The 20 or so
state motor vehicle departments
that have facial-recognition systems
or are in the process of
implementing them typically perform
one-to-one and one-to-many
matches within their states.

Growth in such applications
is continuing, spurred by concerns
about identity theft and fraud.
Along with Colorado, Illinois,
Iowa, Kentucky, Wisconsin,
Washington and many others,
Oregon is the latest state to install facial

"Doing facial matching in state motor vehicle
departments is acceptable, logical and
inexpensive. More states will move toward it,"
said Raj Nanavati, partner at International
Biometric Group, a consulting firm in New


However, criticism is emerging, too, especially
in states in which the drivers' photos are being
shared or may be shared with other states and
with law enforcement agencies.

Police departments, eager for more investigative
tools, are pressing for access to the
millions of photographs in the motor vehicle
databases. A few states prohibit such sharing,
but many allow it. In Massachusetts, there
have been media reports of the Registry of
Vehicles' database of faces being used as a
crime-fighting tool. In Pinellas County, Fla.,
police officers use facial-recognition tools on
booking photographs. In Illinois, driver's
license photos are shared with the state police
and on request with local law enforcement
agencies, Langen said.

Such mission creep poses a danger to privacy
and could lead to intrusive surveillance and
tracking, said Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the
American Civil Liberties Union.

Nonetheless, use of facial-recognition
technology for law enforcement
is an expanding area. An executive
at Digimarc, which currently
supplies facial-recognition technologies
to about 13 state motor vehicle
departments, said the capability is
shared with law enforcement in six
states, and there is growing demand
for it.

People use the technology to identify
the homeless, deceased,
Alzheimer's patients and criminals,
said Kevin O'Leary, senior product
line manager for biometrics at
Digimarc. "We are also seeing interest
in using it in intelligence fusion
centers," he said. "There is a growing understanding
of the connection between false identifications
and support for criminal activity."

In addition to fraud control, the Real ID Act
is driving some opportunities, although it does
not explicitly require use of facial recognition
or sharing of photos, industry experts said. The
next frontier may be sharing photographs and
facial-recognition capabilities between states
to discover individuals who have multiple identities
in several states.

The American Association of Motor Vehicles
sponsors the Digital Image Exchange program,
a secure network that lets several states share
driver's license photos. It is primarily used for
one-to-one matching, in which a state sends a
photo and name of an applicant to the state of
the applicant's former residence, asking to verify
that the previous photos match the current
images. The system does not do one-to-many
searches to look for multiple aliases for the
same photo in other states, association
spokesman Jason King said.

Out-of-state sharing may become more
popular eventually if the privacy issues can
be addressed, Nanavati said. "It has strong
security benefits, but that is when you run into
greater privacy and legality concerns," he said.

Several other projects and developments are
driving growth in facial recognition.
  • The State Department uses it for its database
    of foreign visa applicants' facial
    images, which it has been building since
    2004 under a contract with L-1 Identity
    Solutions Inc. The system was developed at
    State to reduce visa-related identity fraud.
  • The FBI's $1 billion Next Generation
    Identification system is being built to add
    face and palm print biometrics databases
    to the crime-fighting arsenal. It also will
    make it easier to share data from the existing
    fingerprint system. The FBI chose
    Lockheed Martin Corp. Feb. 12 as the
    prime contractor.
  • The Homeland Security Department's U.S.
    Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator
    Technology program is experimenting with
    multimodal biometrics, including facial
    recognition, said Director Robert Mocny.
    US-VISIT collects fingerprints from visa
    applicants and shares that information with
    other agencies.
  • New technologies for 3-D facial recognition
    and new algorithms for greater accuracy
    are being developed.

For now, expect to see more motor vehicle
offices adopting the technology, industry
experts said. More sharing with law enforcement
and with other states might come later if
privacy can be protected.

"Facial recognition is getting to a point where
it really has a high degree of potential acceptance.
But it is not yet capable in covert and facein-
the-crowd applications," said Walter
Hamilton, chairman of the International
Biometric Industry Association.

"In my view, facial recognition at state motor
vehicle departments is one of the most logical
applications. It works the best," said Jeremy
Grant, senior vice president at Stanford Group
Co. investment research firm.

Alice Lipowicz ( is a
staff writer at Washington Technology.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above.

What is your e-mail address?

My e-mail address is:

Do you have a password?

Forgot your password? Click here

Washington Technology Daily

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.


contracts DB