Unsmiling faces help prevent identity theft in Nova Scotia

Bland driver’s licence photos are a key part of the Nova Scotia government’s strategy to protect people from identity theft and keep itself from being defrauded.

'Identity theft is one of the fastest growing forms of consumer fraud ... it can wreak such havoc'

This is a sample of Nova Scotia's new drivers' licences. People are no longer allowed to smile or wear glasses in their driver's licence photo. (Submitted photo)

Bland driver's licence photos are a key part of the Nova Scotia government's strategy to protect people from identity theft and keep itself from being defrauded. 

Photos with no smiles, no glasses and bored, flat expressions are a must.

"That's really for the software to work properly," said Kevin Mitchell, Nova Scotia's registrar of motor vehicles. 

The software he's referring to is the province's new facial recognition program, which has been up and running since January. Anyone flagged by the software is also double checked by a person who is trained in facial recognition.   

"When you have a consistency in your photo from one photo to the next it allows the software to work best," said Mitchell. 

It's meant to help stop identity theft, prevent people from getting a licence when they're not supposed to, and detect whether one photo is being used with many different names.

Facial recognition is just one of the methods the province uses to verify someone's identity. 

Saskatchewan started using facial recognition software when issuing photo ID cards in 2016. (SGI/Twitter)

So far, only a handful of people have been caught trying to defraud the system, but Mitchell wouldn't say exactly how many. 

None of the cases have been serious enough to warrant police involvement, he said. Anyone who was caught was contacted by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

"If we determine there are multiple incidents of various driver's licences under different names with the same photo ... we would relay that information to the appropriate enforcement agency," said Mitchell.

The power of a driver's licence

Protecting the drivers' licence system is a big deal because a licence opens a lot of doors for fraudsters, according to Ann Cavoukian who leads the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University and served three terms as Ontario's privacy commissioner. 

"If someone steals your driver's licence successfully and claims to be the person on the driver's licence, they can use it for a variety of purposes. They can use that to then get other credit cards and make purchases and just wreak havoc," said Cavoukian.         

Ann Cavoukian is a privacy expert who served three terms as privacy commissioner for Ontario and now leads the Privacy by Design Centre for Excellence at Ryerson University. (Ryerson University)

She applauds the province for finding another way to try and protect people from identity theft. 

"Identity theft is one of the fastest growing forms of consumer fraud and it can wreak such havoc on your life. When I was commissioner I had a number of cases that came to me to me in terms of identity theft and it can just ruin your life until you can clear your identity," she said. 

Other jurisdictions have been using facial recognition technology for years for similar purposes.

In Ontario the province's lottery and gaming commission has been using facial recognition to keep problem gamblers out of casinos. In China, billions are tracked through facial recognition.     

Back in 2014, Calgary police gave the media a demonstration on how their facial recognition software works. (CBC)

Cavoukian cautions the government of Nova Scotia to make sure that facial recognition software is only used for what it was intended for, and to not share the data with other government agencies or third parties.

She said if facial recognition data becomes widespread throughout different organizations it could be used to perform surveillance on people or track them long term. 

"I just urge them to make sure the necessary precautions are there, so that it can't be used for purposes that were never intended," she said.  

Kevin Mitchell said the facial recognition software in Nova Scotia is only being used internally by the Registry of Motor Vehicles and will not be shared with third parties. The facial recognition data will only be handed over if required by a court order, according to the registry's website. 

About the Author

David Burke

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David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.