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The DMV's no smile zone

By Michael R. Shannon
web posted January 11, 2010

Last summer the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) determined to make a baleful experience even more grim by refusing to let customers (drivers? victims? sheep?) smile as they had their new driver's license photo taken.

The DMV has always been the aboriginal's greatest fear realized. Whereas natives formerly believed that when the Great White Bwana took their photo the camera also stole their soul; the DMV streamlines the process by crushing your soul without bothering with the photo.

My mental picture of the DMV has always been the crowd scene of the 1984 Apple Computer commercial: gray people, gray clothing, gray surroundings. Prohibiting a smile is the icing on the cake or the nail in the coffin — take your pick.

The ostensible reason for this change is "to prepare for the possibility of future security enhancements, (so) we're asking customers to maintain a neutral expression," explains the DMV's Pam Goheen. Unmentioned is the policy's role in implementing the nationwide secure ID program from the Feds that requires driver's licenses to be more difficult for terrorists to obtain.

Which makes me wonder if the smile prohibition applies to customers wearing burkas?

The facial recognition software is designed compare driver's photographs taken "over time" to prevent fraud and identity theft. But there are holes in this theory.

If DMV wants to prevent the theft of existing identities it doesn't require a HAL 2000 to run the photos. A human — even a DMV employee — could simply compare the new photo and name with the existing photo and name. If Grandma suddenly got very big teeth between photos, they would know the case merits additional investigation.

Scenario two: the thief doesn't use a name already in the system, so the software matches the new deathbed photo with the universe of photos that are in the system. Unfortunately, the existing photos in Virginia were taken before the Grin Police became active, so this solution goes live in 2025 when only soulless photos exist.

Scenario three: Abu Jihadi comes in with a fake birth certificate from another state and neither he nor the person whose identity he's stealing has ever had a VA license. Unless the VA photo database is connected with every other DMV database in the 50 states (a chilling thought right there) the photo software just spins its wheels.

Scenario four: am I missing something? I admit I've never stolen an identity so I may not be up on the latest technology, but I can't think of any other situation. So how is this software a benefit for anyone other than the software manufacturer?

The state of Illinois claims to have stopped 6,000 people from getting fraudulent licenses since their technology was launched in 1999, but they don't say how many would have been caught by simply comparing photos with the human eyeball.

Twenty–seven other states use some type of anti–fraud software, but they evidently did not buy from the Gloom & Doom Company, because a those states don't prohibit grins, smiles, eye twinkles or personality.

For me, the quality of the photo is immaterial, but money spent on a solution in search of a problem does concern me.

I'm famous for my bad photos. In the vast majority I look like one of the after–the–shootout photos of a Western outlaw, minus the bullet holes. If I had been laid on a door when the photo was taken, you could not tell the difference between my photo and that of the late Bad Bob.

But there are people in my family who take good pictures. My wife is a lovely, cheerful, effervescent and outgoing soul who brightens every room she enters.

Last month Janet had to renew her license. Upon her return, she mentioned they told her not to smile during the photo, but left it at that.

So you can imagine our surprise a few days later when we opened the envelope with her new license photo looked just like noted desperado "Ma" Barker. In fact, it's good that "Ma" was shot dead by the FBI during a gunfight in 1935; otherwise Janet might be accused of attempted identity theft.

Just look at these two photos:

Janet Ma Barker

I wouldn't trust either one of them with a Thompson sub–machine gun. Janet's former color license photos may not have been the epitome of the photographic art, but this chiaroscuro etching she got from the DMV is one step up from a cave painting.

My first thought when I saw this photo was: can you imagine what the photo of an ugly person will look like?

My second thought was: if all our photos look like terrorists, have the terrorists won? ESR

Michael R. Shannon is a public relations and advertising consultant with corporate, government and political experience around the globe. He is a dynamic and entertaining keynote speaker. He can be reached at michael-shannon@comcast.netmichael-shannon@comcast.net.





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