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States Use Facial Recognition Technology to Address License Fraud

At least 39 states now use the technology.

By Jenni Bergal

One driver, one license, that's how it's supposed to be. But some fraudsters or drivers with serious violations try to beat the system by getting multiple licenses using different names.

The implications of the deceit are far-ranging: People use driver's licenses and state IDs to do everything from cashing checks to opening bank accounts to boarding domestic flights.

States increasingly are foiling the crooks and scam artists by employing a high-tech tool: facial recognition software. The software uses algorithms of facial characteristics to compare driver's license or ID photos with other DMV images on file.

At least 39 states now use the software in some fashion, and many say they've gotten remarkable results. In New York, thousands of people with false identities have been arrested, and even in the less populous state of Nebraska, hundreds have. Two states _ New Jersey and New York _ are now working together on a project to identify certain types of violators, a step that other states may follow.

"You have an opportunity, using this technology, to find people who are trying to skirt the system," said Geoff Slagle, director of identity management for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA). "It has really helped to identify fraudsters."

But critics raise concerns about privacy invasion and potential abuse. While photo database access is limited to the department of motor vehicles (DMV) in some states, others allow sharing with law enforcement.

For a long time, it was hard for states to crack down on identity thieves and fraudsters, given their lack of manpower. But officials say that has no longer been the case since they started using facial recognition. Among the cases uncovered in the last two years:

_In New York, a sanitation worker was charged with impersonating his dead twin brother and collecting more than $500,000 in disability benefits over 20 years.

_In Iowa, a fugitive who escaped from a North Carolina prison while serving time for armed robbery in the 1970s was identified when he tried to apply for a driver's license using another name.

_In New Jersey, a man was charged with using false identities to get two fraudulent commercial driver's licenses to drive trucks. His licenses had been suspended 64 times, including six times for DUI convictions.

"A driver's license is a strong, dependable form of ID," Slagle said. "We want to make sure the people who are getting the licenses are who they claim to be."

Many officials say facial recognition has made a difference in their ability to detect and deter fraud and abuse.

"It's not a panacea, but it's another great tool in our arsenal to tie the driver to the record," said Raymond Martinez, chairman of New Jersey's DMV. "Our goal is one driver, one record. We have to be able to know that an individual can't just game the system and get a license under another name."

Here's how facial recognition works: When someone applies for a driver's license or ID, a photo is taken and the image is converted into a template created from the person's unique physical features, such as cheekbones or the distance between eye pupils. An algorithm compares the image with others in the database, searching for a possible match.

If analysts discover that the image is associated with two or more identities, they try to figure out why. Sometimes, it's a clerical error or the result of a name change after a marriage or divorce.

Often it's a deliberate attempt to violate the law. If fraud is suspected, the department investigates and can take administrative action, such as a license suspension. Agencies that have their own investigative unit with arrest powers can also conduct a criminal probe; those that do not can turn the case over to an outside law enforcement agency.

State officials say people seek more than one license for a number of reasons. Some want to stay behind the wheel despite having lost their driving privileges due to multiple serious violations, such as DUIs. Others want to obtain credit, buy a car or get a mortgage using a stolen identity. Still others are wanted felons or criminals, such as sex offenders, who are trying to hide their identity by using an alias.

"The driver's license is the gateway to everyday interaction," said Ian Grossman, vice president of member services for AAMVA, the motor vehicle administrators group. "If someone has a legitimate license from an issuing authority under false pretenses, it empowers them to do bad things."

Facial recognition has led to numerous arrests and administrative actions against drivers.

In New York, where the technology was adopted in 2010, the DMV has identified 14,500 people with two or more licenses, all fraudulent, said Owen McShane, that agency's director of investigations. Some date to the 1990s and are too old to prosecute.

McShane said his agency has taken administrative action against 9,500 people and arrested 3,500 more. They include a man who was a fugitive for 17 years after robbing a bank and a woman who collected nearly $525,000 in fraudulent disability benefits.

In New Jersey, Martinez, the DMV chairman, said officials have referred about 2,500 fraud cases to law enforcement since 2011. More than half couldn't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired. They also cleaned up more than 12,500 clerical errors.

New York and New Jersey are working on a pilot project that uses both states' photo databases to pinpoint drivers with commercial licenses who have had multiple violations and are getting licenses with phony identities and crossing state borders. Martinez said it's the first state-to-state project, but he suspects others will pick up on it.


Nonpartisan, Nonprofit News Service of the Pew Charitable Trusts
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