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Washington legislators have proposed a pair of bills that would revive a successful crime-fighting tool.

The bills introduced in both the Washington House and Senate would give the Department of Licensing the authority to resume computerized facial recognition scans on all photos of driver license applicants.

Costly error

The KING 5 Investigators reported inthis story last summer that the successful program was shutdown only months after it was launched because of an error by DOL. The agency learned that it did not have the proper legislative authority to conduct the photo scans.

It was a good program. We have the money, it has some results that we can now measure, said Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), one of the bill s sponsors.

Facial recognition software allows DOL to scan each of the 14 million photos in its database to look for duplicate photos. The software compares facial features in each photo and looks for a match.

When DOL scoured its entire database in November of 2010, it found five thousand people whose photo appeared on more than one valid ID or driver license. DOL investigators are now looking at each of those cases to determine if they involve identity fraud and whether they should be referred to law enforcement. The agency has already cancelled or suspended more than a thousand licenses.

One woman, two faces

The case of Eliza Bighetty is an example of the software at its best. She donned a wig and walked into a DOL office to apply for a driver license in the name of her deceased step-daughter. The scheme worked and for ten years Bighetty received social security benefits and food stamps.

When Bighetty applied for an enhanced driver license, her photo was run through facial recognition software and the jig was up.

Without facial recognition software we, as law enforcement, may not have caught her, said special agent Joseph Velling of the Social Security Administration.

Velling said once the software caught Bighetty, SSA and the State Department of Social and Health Services determined she stole nearly $100,000 in benefits over ten years in the name of her dead relative.

Not everyone is eager to see the return of the photo scans. The American Civil Liberties Union plans to fight the legislation at a hearing in Olympia this week.

The ACLU said facial recognition is notoriously unreliable and it fears innocent people could lose their licenses or be charged with crimes.

The bills do not impact photo scans of applicants for higher-security enhanced driver licenses. DOL already has the legal authority to run facial recognition software for that program.

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