Facial Recognition System Makes Fake Licenses Hard to Get in Wisconsin

May 7--Getting a fake state-issued driver's license in Wisconsin now requires more than stolen or forged documents. It might take a plastic surgeon.

Every night, after the cameras have been shut off and the staff has gone home, computers quietly scan the roughly 5,500 images captured at state Division of Motor Vehicles field offices that day and compare them to some 6 million photos from driver's licenses and state identification cards on file.

They look at the shape of the nose, the arch of the eyebrows, the crease in the forehead. If the person photographed that day has had a picture taken for a state ID since 1997, chances are, the computers will find it.

"Our goal is to prevent someone from getting more than one driver's license or identification card," said Phil Alioto, a fraud prevention specialist for the division.

Since the facial recognition program was set up in September, authorities have intercepted more than 630 attempts to acquire fake IDs, Alioto said.

Those stopped have included a convicted child molester and drug dealer trying to establish new identities, he said.

"There are lots of reasons people may want to hide their identities," Alioto said. They may be underage college students looking to buy beer, or felons who want to buy a firearm. They could have drunken-driving convictions that keep them from getting a driver's license under their own names.

Many have a history of financial crimes, using the cards to open checking accounts under assumed names or sign up for public benefits.

"We've seen cases where people came in with great frequency," said Beth Langen, digital driver's license project manager for the secretary of state's office in Illinois, which was the first to use such technology on its driver's license and state identification cards. Since that state's facial recognition program was implemented in 1999, about 10,000 fraudulent IDs have been canceled.

Wisconsin's system isn't foolproof. If you've been in before and you're just renewing your license -- even a fake one -- you'll likely walk out with a new card. The fraud won't be caught until the next morning, after the facial recognition program flags your photo and any others it resembles.

Two DMV employees review the possible matches, cancel the cards and refer the names to law enforcement. But the person still has the ID.

People who have never had an ID picture taken in Wisconsin and have stolen or bought a Social Security card and a birth certificate also are hard to catch, Alioto said.

"It's very difficult, if you've got authentic documents in front of you, to catch an imposter," he said.

But Wisconsin is one of the first states that waits to issue an identification to first-time applicants until it has run the person's face through the system, said Mike Mazzu, vice president of professional services at Viisage, the Massachusetts firm that was awarded the five-year contract to run the program.

The company runs similar programs in 10 states, including Illinois, North Carolina and Connecticut, Mazzu said, although some states prefer not to advertise the operation. The Wisconsin contract calls for paying the company $1.06 to produce each photo ID and run the facial recognition software, with an estimated 1.3 million cards processed per year, Alioto said.

In seconds, the program takes thousands of measurements of each face it scans, producing a unique graph for that face that it compares to the graphs of all other faces in the database.

The technology has raised some concerns among privacy advocates elsewhere over who has access to the photo database. Wisconsin law limits access to the database to DMV officials and, in limited cases, law enforcement, which must destroy the pictures after they're used.

Use of the pictures for any other purpose would require an act of the Legislature, Alioto said.

"Everything we're doing here is to prevent identity theft," Alioto said.

<<Wisconsin State Journal, The (KRT) -- 05/08/06>>