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As if It Needed to, Virginia Bans Smiles at the DMV

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

Few places in Virginia are as draining to the soul and as numbing to the buttocks as the branch offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles. And yet, until recently, smiling was still permitted there.

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No more. As part of the DMV's effort to develop super-secure driver's licenses and foolproof identification cards, the agency has issued a smile ban, directing customers to adopt a "neutral expression" in their portraits, thereby extinguishing whatever happiness comes with finally hearing one's number called.

The driver's license photo, it seems, is destined to look like a mug shot.

DMV officials say the smile ban is for a good cause. The agency would like to develop a facial recognition system that could compare customers' photographs over time to prevent fraud and identity theft. "The technology works best when the images are similar," said DMV spokeswoman Pam Goheen. "To prepare for the possibility of future security enhancements, we're asking customers to maintain a neutral expression."

At a Manassas DMV branch yesterday, that translated to a simple directive: "Don't smile."

That's exactly what a DMV attendant told Manassas resident Maria Quispe when she sat down against the white backdrop and attempted to look happy for the photo she would be carrying around for much of the next eight years.

"Say cheese," said her stepdaughter, Alexandra Lopez.

"No cheese today," the DMV attendant said.

The shutter clicked, and the attendant consulted a computer monitor, then shook her head disapprovingly.

Quispe's teeth had been visible. Strike one. "Your mouth was open," the attendant said.

Quispe's second attempt turned out sufficiently dull. "It's going to be so ugly," Quispe said afterward. "This is like being in the Army!"

When asked how DMV employees are able to determine when customers might be smiling too much, Goheen explained that the process is automated. Naturally, the new software is programmed to reject attempts at exuberance or human warmth. "It will send an error message if it detects a non-neutral expression," she said.

The ban is in effect at more than half of the agency's 74 offices statewide, Goheen said, including most Northern Virginia branches. It is expected to be in place at the remaining branches by the end of next month.

Nationwide, 37 motor vehicle agencies use facial recognition technologies, said Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. "Some focus on the entire face, and the states using those technologies find they work better for fraud prevention when customers have a neutral expression," he said.

King said he wasn't sure how many states had a smile ban. Maryland and the District do not have such bans and have yet to implement facial recognition software.

As for DMV patrons in Virginia, there is further cause for disappointment beyond the anti-smile rule. With the new system, state residents can no longer get their licenses and identification cards on the same day as their visits.

Instead, licenses and identification cards are now processed at a central facility in the southern Virginia city of Danville, then mailed to the customer's address a few days later. The new cards are loaded with security features, including tactile lettering, secondary photos and anti-tampering measures, and they will be phased in as state residents renew their licenses and ID cards, Goheen said.

Customers don't have to frown or anything like that, she said, and they can even grin a little, as long as they don't show any teeth.

"It's weird that you're not allowed to smile," said Christopher George, a 22-year-old from Manassas who had also been scolded when he tried to put forward a good face for his portrait. He worried that that the dour expression he had to adopt would put him at a disadvantage.

"I mean, when you get pulled over, you want a friendly picture for the cop to look at," he reasoned. On the loudspeaker overhead, a robotic voice summoned customers to the attendant windows by number, guided by some mysterious algorithm.

"It makes everyone look like criminals," said Arthur Freeman, 18, who needed no prompting to appear unhappy after waiting two hours for a motorcycle license. "I don't usually smile for these pictures anyway."

Nearby, 19-year-old Robert Nuckols, also of Manassas, returned to the waiting area after posing for his learner's permit photo. "We're at the DMV," he said. "Why would we smile?"

Nuckols said that when he took off his hat and sat down in front of the camera for his photo, the attendant directed him to look at a specific spot on the lens, between a pair of stickers. The stickers were smiley faces.

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