Massachusetts has problems with error rates for biometrics

According to an article on the IEEE Spectrum Risk Factor blog, people in the state of Massachusetts are being inconvenienced a bit by the error rates of a biometric system that the state uses to identify people suspected of having a fake identity. Here's how Spectrum summarized what happened in one particular case:

John H. Gass is still not a happy person. On the 5th of April, he received a letter dated the 22nd of March from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles telling him that his driving license had been revoked, and that he must immediately stop driving.

Mr. Gass, who had not received a traffic violation for years, was identified by the RMV as a person suspected of having a fake identity by an automated anti-terrorism facial recognition system, an article in the Boston Globe reported. At least 34 other states use the same or similar software, the Globe says, much of it paid for in part by grants from the US Department of Homeland Security.

It turns out that the face recognition software flagged Mr. Gass's picture as looking like another Massachusetts driver, hence the letter from the Massachusetts RMV. The Globe says that it took Mr. Gass ten days of wrestling with the RMV bureaucracy to prove to them that he was indeed who he said he was before he was able to get his license back.

According to the Globe story, based on results of the recognition system, last year the "State Police obtained 100 arrest warrants for fraudulent identity, and 1,860 licenses were revoked as a result of the software."

Neither the Spectrum article nor the Globe article that it refers to say how many off those arrest warrents and license revocations turned out to be due to the non-zero false match rate for the facial recognition system that the state government uses.

Based on the error rates of biometric systems that I'm familliar with, I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Gass isn't alone in having a problem with being inaccurately identified by one of these systems. The Globe article leads you to believe, however, that the state isn't very sympathetic in these situations at all. It quotes a state spokesman saying that, "protecting the public far outweighs any inconvenience Gass or anyone else might experience."

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