NJ Drivers Forced to Submit Photos to Facial Recognition Database

September 21st, 2012

Swiss surveillance array capable of facial, license plate, and vehicle recognition.

News outlets across the nation are in an uproar — New Jersey drivers are no longer allowed to smile in their driver’s license photos. How rude! Frumpy facial expressions on driver’s licenses are no longer just for people angry with their wait at the DMV — they are now mandatory. Is this yet another example of Big Government gone wild? Yes, but not just because of that.

Buried below the headline is the real story. While it is absurd that drivers can’t smile in their license photos, the real problem has more to do with the reason why. Under the guise of preventing driver’s license fraud, the New Jersey government is compiling all of the photos in a database for use by facial recognition software.

Civil Liberties at Threat

The right to privacy is a long-established political principle in America. When it comes to a law-abiding citizen who has never been arrested or accused of a crime, there is no reason for the government to collect enormous amounts of personal data. Throughout history, it has been assumed that free people should not have to do this. Many do not realize that Social Security cards were once a source of controversy. It was originally a voluntary program, and citizens were concerned that it would become mandatory and begin being used as a federal ID card. Fast forward a few decades and the Social Security card is hardly optional for anyone hoping to lead a normal life.

Facial recognition software represents a serious escalation in attempts by the government to compile data on citizens. More and more computer peripherals and software applications can recognize faces. In time, federal employees (hundreds of thousands of them have special national security clearance) could track the movement and behavior of other people through the use of public security cameras. One could imagine a future where software has the ability to alert a federal employee whenever a face is recognized by a specific camera. The technological possibilities are limitless.

It doesn’t take a full-blown suspension of the Constitution and declaration of martial law for this type of data collection to cause a serious infringement on someone’s fundamental human rights. What if a federal employee with special clearance had a grudge against someone from their personal life and used the facial recognition software to track and then blackmail them? What if a federal employee developed a romantic obsession with someone and used it to stalk them?

In the era of WikiLeaks, no data is secure. If the government can’t protect diplomatic cables or top-secret military plans, then how are they to be trusted with personal data on citizens? A hacker could easily pilfer the database and sell it to whoever for whatever purpose.

Preventing Driver’s License Fraud Is the Government’s Burden, Not Yours

Just because someone might commit fraud doesn’t mean law-abiding citizens need to submit their likenesses to facial recognition databases. The government has a responsibility to prevent this type of fraud, but not by suspending civil liberties and requiring all drivers to submit to a program like this.

However, it’s obvious that driver’s license fraud prevention is not the intended purpose of the program. Since driver’s licenses are essentially mandatory for all citizens who want to drive (and vote, in many states), then ordinary people who want the ability to live a normal life are going to have to get them and thus submit to whatever requirements are involved. With more and more municipalities installing public security cameras everywhere possible, facial recognition software could be used in frightening new ways.

While it’s true that most people’s likenesses are already publicly available in some way, third parties are not legally allowed to compile this type of data and use it for other purposes without permission. Also, driver’s licenses are already listed in a database, and the old pictures can be viewed by DMV employees as-is. Facial recognition software doesn’t even serve as a labor saving device, because it takes virtually no effort for a DMV employee to view the old picture and verify if the person matches. Also, individuals sometimes get disfigured in accidents or change their appearance with plastic surgery procedures. Are victims of bad car accidents going to be denied driver’s licenses when their faces no longer match?

Given that facial recognition software does not provide any new capabilities in preventing driver’s license fraud, it’s clear the motive is all about compiling more data with which to track citizens without a warrant. We already have to be photographed for driver’s licenses in the first place — exporting this data for use in other ways by facial recognition software goes way too far. This just puts us one step closer to a full-surveillance, “Big-Brother-is-watching-you” style police state.

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About the Author: Barry Donegan

Barry Donegan is a singer for the experimental mathcore band Look What I Did, a writer, a self-described "veteran lifer in the counterculture", a political activist/consultant, and a believer in the non-aggression principle.