State shuts down successful crime-fighting tool

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 Investigators

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on September 12, 2011 at 10:06 PM

Updated Monday, Sep 12 at 10:42 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The Washington Department of Licensing has been using new computer software to scan for identity thieves. ID thieves often use false documents and stolen information to obtain state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards that they can use to open bank and credit accounts.

"Identity theft is a costly crime. It's costly to society. It's costly to the victims," said DOL  spokesperson Tony Sermonti.

Last October the Department of Licensing struck back by rolling out facial recognition software that runs biometric scans of each of the 14 million photos in DOL’s database. The software trolls for duplicate photos.

"It's a mathematical formula that simply looks at the distance between one's ears, the size of their mouth, the shape of their nose," said Sermonti. "If it detects matches with your nose or mouth or ears, then it's going to flag them."

If the computer flags a case, then humans take over. DOL has a team of investigators that further analyze the photos.

Successful scanning

The results of DOL’s photo scans are staggering.

Investigators are now looking into 5,000 cases of people whose photos appear on more than one current license or ID card.

They've already suspended 402 licenses and referred 13 cases for criminal prosecution as they continue to pour through leads generated by the computer.

But just as the program was producing results, DOL shut it down.

It’s not running the software any more, except for the small percentage of licenses issued under the enhanced driver’s license program.

This isn't one of those sad stories about budget cutting taking a whack out of a successful program. There is money to fund the program thanks to a $1.1 million federal grant.

What happened?

The problem started in April just as lawmakers were ready to vote to accept the federal grant money. Someone discovered that Washington already has a biometrics law enacted in 2004 that said that each license applicant gets to choose if they want their photo scanned. The law said the program is voluntary. You can read the 2004 law here.

DOL quickly realized that this meant that ID thieves could simply opt-out of the biometric scans so it shut the program down.

It's a big blunder considering that DOL spent years getting the funding and support for biometrics and missed the fact that a conflicting law was already on the books.

The 2004 state law was enacted at the time the federal government was pushing for a national driver's license, unpopular with many states which feared the feds would collect their biometric data. In a pre-emptive strike, Washington lawmakers allowed license applicants to opt out of any future biometric programs.

By the time present day lawmakers realized the impact of that law it was too late in the legislative session to revise it.

“It was an oversight. We have a strong review process here at the agency but this one got through," said the DOL’s Sermonti.

DOL does have authority to run facial scans on enhanced driver's license photos, but not on standard driver's licenses, even though it started doing that last October.

"I'm not sure everyone knew it was being done on that level," said State Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), who chairs the committee with oversight of DOL. She thinks lawmakers will vote to revive the program next year.

"I would say it's a good program. It has the money. It has some results we can now measure. I would take it forward early next session," said Clibborn.

For several months, though, DOL will be without what could be its most effective tool at stopping ID thieves. The software caught an average of ten license applicants a day who already have at least one current license on file.

A Tacoma man named Brian, who asked that we not use his last name, had $20,000 in credit card bills generated by an ID thief. The thief used a driver’s license in Brian’s name to open the accounts.

"The scary part is not knowing how far this guy can take it,” said Brian. “He has my identity. It's always in the back of my mind wondering when will it be over and how far is this guy going to go."

What now?

DOL said it will continue to investigate the 5,000 cases already generated by the computer. DOL also points out that the shutdown will not affect the enhanced driver’s license program, which has been running facial recognition scans for more than two years.

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