NMA E-Newsletter #134: Face This

A new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, to be released later this week at a Las Vegas security conference, suggests that anonymity is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

We live in an age of online searches when there may well be someone motivated to find out who is the person behind that user name.

In one experiment, the researchers gathered 5,000 profiles of people from an online dating service. Most were using pseudonyms. The profiles were run through some basic facial recognition software that compared the results with images found from an online search of the Facebook site.

The Carnegie Mellon team was able to confirm the identities of over 500 people from the original sample along with personal details of many.

That hit rate will only grow as facial recognition software becomes more sophisticated and the user base of online social networks increases. And chillingly, the mistaken identity rate will grow accordingly.

The NMA is among many organizations raising loud warnings that the development of a national ID card, particularly one centered on the driver license, is a terrible idea.

Fortunately, our opposition is aided substantially by several states that are balking at participating in the federal Real ID program, mostly because of implementation costs not subsidized by the feds.

Real ID requires that each state’s standard driver license include specific information that can be fed into a national database.

The John Gass episode is a stark reminder of how a person’s life can be upended when his or her personal information is misused, misappropriated, or misinterpreted. In John’s case, it was the latter, but the impact to his well-being was no less serious.

Gass received notification from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles that his driver license had been revoked. This came as a complete surprise because he hadn’t received as much as a parking ticket for many years.

After scrambling to find out what bureaucratic snafu was at the root of the problem, Gass finally determined that anti-terrorism facial recognition software is used routinely to scan the millions of driver license images stored by the state. His image was mistakenly isolated as being a possible fraudulent identity.

It took several days to figure out the error and to get the state agency to reinstate his license.

Not reassuringly, a spokesperson for the MA Registry said that 1,500 license suspension letters go out every day and there are bound to be some mistakes.

The agency has been using the facial recognition software since 2006, a fact that no doubt will surprise most holders of driver licenses in the state. And before you breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Thank God I don’t have a Massachusetts driver license,” be aware that 34 other states are using similar software for the same purposes. ♦

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