If the eyes are the window to the soul, then facial-recognition technology might be regarded as the soul's window cleaner — at least by state officials nationwide who are increasingly using it to catch identity thieves and other fraudsters trying to get driver's licenses.
New York this year became one of more than 30 states to deploy the controversial technology at its Department of Motor Vehicles. Gov. David A. Paterson will brief reporters Tuesday on hundreds of cases the state is prosecuting as a result — including at least one that officials will tout as a major criminal apprehension.
New York officials would not comment prior to the briefing, but the Empire State is just the latest in a long line to find that facial recognition can be a powerful tool to unmask identity thieves and other imposters.
Facial-recognition software automatically examines digital photographs, comparing the unique underlying structures of the face across different images — flagging suspicious matches.
Officials in Indiana, who started using the technology in November 2008, say they are finding less than half as many fraud cases this year as they did last.
"It's a real deterrent," said Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles Deputy Commissioner Dennis Rosebrough. Historically, he said, the state had a reputation as an easy place to fraudulently obtain a driver's license or non-driver ID. The Indianapolis Star newspaper once referred to the bureau as "A hotbed of fraud."
BMV Spokesman Graig Lubsen told The Washington Times that the bureau had investigated 2,200 cases of suspected fraud in 2009, but only 451 as of the beginning of July this year.
"The word is out on the street," added Mr. Rosebrough, "that it is now very difficult to get a fraudulent ID in Indiana."
Among the cases that helped scotch the state's reputation as an "easy mark," he said, was that of William Sherman Smith, known as "Big Daddy." Earlier this year, Mr. Smith pleaded guilty to federal charges of using false identification and counterfeit checks. According to Mr. Rosebrough, Mr. Smith had ID documents in 149 different names and had engaged in check-cashing and other fraud to the tune of more than $250,000.
Although Big Daddy was remarkably prolific in the number of identities he acquired, his case was otherwise not untypical, Mr. Rosebrough said.
"Most of the time, what we find is people are taking their new identity to open bank or credit card accounts to steal goods and services under a phony name," he said.
In Indiana, applicants for a new license or for renewal in less than 14 days get a paper license or license extension while their photo is being compared with the 5.2 million on file at the bureau, Mr. Rosebrough said. The software generates possible matches with other license holders — to determine whether the applicant previously held a license in a different name — and checks renewals against previous applications to ensure they come from the same person.
The delay in issuing the license gives officials time to check for false matches, and resolve them administratively, before "doing all the spade work and the initial evidence gathering," Mr. Rosebrough said. The cases are then turned over to law enforcement for further investigation.
In some cases, the bureau's Fraud and Security Enforcement Division will issue a "wanted poster" to license offices bearing the suspected fraudster's photo.
Last week, he added, a bureau employee recognized someone in the Warsaw, Ind., license office waiting area from such a poster. Police were called. "The man admitted having multiple identities and he was taken into custody," Mr. Rosebrough said. He declined to give further details, saying the case was still under investigation.
Brian Zimmer of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License told The Times that what distinguishes New York, Indiana and a dozen or so states that he said take a similar "hard line on imposters" is that "every attempt at fraud is prosecuted," and that officials press felony charges. The coalition is a nonprofit that advocates the introduction of anti-fraud measures in motor vehicle departments nationwide.
Mr. Zimmer said New York had carefully piloted facial-recognition technology for more than a year before rolling it out in January "to ensure full scale application throughout the state would be successful, and not lead to mistakes or service delays. I understand that hundreds of people have been arrested so far this year as a result of its deployment."
Once officials have evidence of a fraudulent application — either from facial recognition-technology or any other discrepancy — they then have probable cause to check the applicant against other law enforcement databases, to find out whether they are wanted for other crimes.
"Facial recognition doesn't convict these people," Mr. Zimmer said, cautioning that the technology was not a "silver bullet," but "it helps find them."
In Nevada, Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Tom Jacobs told The Times that the technology was introduced in October 2008. "It's been very successful for us," he said.
Investigators check for 250 to 300 matches daily, giving them "an initial eyeball test," he said, and roughly 2 percent of those are referred for further investigation.
"The process needs human intervention" to weed out false positive and negative matches, Mr. Jacobs said.
Prior to the new technology's introduction, officials "scrubbed" the entire DMV database looking for duplicates and the software generated more than 492,000 possible matches, he said. "Investigators worked approximately 30,000 cases" from that list. Some resulted in arrests, but most are older than the three-year limit set by state officials for prosecution of such crimes.
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