Driver’s License Emerges as Crime-Fighting Tool, but Privacy Advocates Worry - New York Times
BOSTON, Feb. 12 — On the second floor of a state office building here, upstairs from a food court, three facial-recognition specialists are revolutionizing American law enforcement. They work for the Massachusetts motor vehicles department.
Last year they tried an experiment, for sport. Using computerized biometric technology, they ran a mug shot from the Web site of “America’s Most Wanted,” the Fox Network television show, against the state’s database of nine million digital driver’s license photographs.
The computer found a match. A man who looked very much like Robert Howell, the fugitive in the mug shot, had a Massachusetts driver’s license under another name. Mr. Howell was wanted in Massachusetts on rape charges.
The analysts passed that tip along to the police, who tracked him down to New York City, where he was receiving welfare benefits under the alias on the driver’s license. Mr. Howell was arrested in October.
At least six other states have or are working on similar enormous databases of driver’s license photographs. Coupled with increasingly accurate facial-recognition technology, the databases may become a radical innovation in law enforcement.
Other biometric databases are more useful for now. But DNA and fingerprint information, for instance, are not routinely collected from the general public. Most adults, on the other hand, have a driver’s license with a picture on it, meaning that the relevant databases for facial-recognition analysis already exist. And while the current technology requires good-quality photographs, the day may not be far off when images from ordinary surveillance cameras will routinely help solve crimes.
Critics say the databases may therefore also represent a profound threat to privacy.
“What is the D.M.V.?” asked Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a privacy advocate. “Does it license motor vehicles and drivers? Or is it really an identification arm of law enforcement?”
Anne L. Collins, the Massachusetts registrar of motor vehicles, said that people seeking a driver’s license at least implicitly consent to allowing their images to be used for other purposes.
“One of the things a driver’s license has become,” Ms. Collins said, “is evidence that you are who you say you are.”