Facial recognition software under fire; PennDOT’s been using it for years
You may not know whether you have a double in Pennsylvania.
But if you’re applying for a driver’s license or a state photo identification, PennDOT will let you know.
The agency uses facial recognition software, as do dozens of other agencies across the nation. Images of each of the 10.1 million Pennsylvanians who hold driver’s licenses and photo IDs are included in a PennDOT facial recognition database.
The low-key program, in place since 2007, seeks to prevent identity theft and fraud, an agency spokeswoman said.
But elsewhere, privacy and civil liberties advocates are taking a hard look at such programs, concerned that they pose risks almost as great as the fraud they purport to prevent.
San Francisco, home to cutting-edge American tech companies, soon could become the first major U.S. city to block the use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
In the first of two required votes, the city’s board of supervisors voted 8-1 in favor of the ban.
“I think part of San Francisco being the real and perceived headquarters for all things tech also comes with a responsibility for its local legislators. We have an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here,” San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the Times.
Facial recognition software employs biometric systems that record intrinsic physical data points designed to identify or verify the identity of people.
Such technology is already in use at Pennsylvania State Police headquarters, where PennDOT sends flagged facial recognition results for further investigation.
“The (facial recognition) compares your image to all of the other pictures in our database. If the software identifies similar photos that could be matches, an interim product prints out and, during the 15-day period it is valid, we review matches to determine if there is fraud,” PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell said.
The initial process happens in a matter of seconds, as the computer runs data points on the applicant’s photo against millions of photos.
If there is a question, the license printed out bears the red stamp “interim.”
In most cases, PennDOT is able to resolve any questions, Campbell said. She couldn’t immediately say how often the agency forwards information to the state police or if that has resulted in any arrests.
“PennDOT’s facial recognition is very specific to the issuance of our own product,” Campbell said. “(State police) uses it differently.”
A state police spokesman was unable to immediately provide statistics on the program and its use.
While civil liberties groups have questioned the use of such technology, law enforcement agencies tout their results.
Authorities identified the gunman who killed five people at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., last year by comparing him to photos in that state’s facial recognition database, the Washington Post reported.
While government agencies promote the security value of such systems in places as varied as airports and border crossings, the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the nation’s leading voices for digital privacy concerns, cautions that they pose extreme risk to personal privacy.
The biggest threat, the organization warns, is the ability of government to use such systems as a means of surveillance.
The risks grow even larger when such databases include traditional data such as name, address, Social Security number, gender, race and date of birth.
“Further, geolocation tracking technologies built on top of large biometrics collections could enable constant surveillance. And if the government gets its way, all of this data could be obtained without a warrant and without notice or warning,” EFF cautions on its website.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .