Security Theatre Of The Absurd

Hey Cougars? Want to flash those pearly whites and shiny disposition when that mid-20’s waiter flatters you by asking for your ID at the bar? Well, good luck in Virginia… Smiling is forbidden:

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.

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.”

Now, this is unlikely to be an issue for me. Given how much I hate stupid bureaucracy, inefficiency, waiting in lines, and the government in general, I’m most certainly not smiling in my license photo. And given that I’m tall (and thus the picture is slightly shot from below), let’s just say that if the picture were used for the nightly news, it wouldn’t fit for their feel-good story.

Every time you see government security, it must be weighed against government control. For example, it has been shown and explained numerous times that the government no-fly list is useless at fighting terrorism, as a committed terrorist will quickly and easily have the means to get a useable fake credit card and ID — or fake boarding pass and real ID — to get through a checkpoint — as the checkpoint workers do not verify names against the list. Thus, the no-fly list becomes another huge government database that has the power to make your life miserable if you accidentally get on it but doesn’t actually enhance security in any meaningful way.

But you know what all this security does? It makes normal citizens, whose interaction with the government is already rare and painful, even more difficult. But instead of taking the proper lesson from this — that government is largely useless and their security is entirely for show — they come away with a different lesson. They believe that perhaps banning smiling in a photo is just what is necessary to keep us safe, and that they should do what the bureaucrats ask without question. They are learning the lesson that obeisance is the key to security, even though reason and evidence suggest otherwise. They learn that it is not necessarily personal vigilance that is required to be safe, but rather letting the government keep ever-closer tabs on us. And that’s the wrong mindset for a country that used to have the values of America.

Then, of course, the story takes its truly absurdist turn:

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.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from science fiction, it’s that the only way that we can defeat the evil android invasion when AI is first invented is to be able to detect the androids amongst us based upon their inability to behave like a human. It appears the machines are already trying to detect whether or not we can behave like them.

Hat Tip: Balko @ Reason

  • southernjames

    I look terrible in photos no matter what, but even worse if I’m serious and not smiling. This is not a good development.

    My son and I took the Florida Concealed Carry course back in February. The package price included fingerprinting on the spot and also the mugshot passport size photo which gets sent to the State.

    The way my photo turned out, based on the background lighting, my (for whatever reason) decision to make a serious face, my messed up (pre-shower on a Saturday morning) hair, and me having my eyes way too wide open…. oh gosh, I looked like a crazy unhinged serial killer. My son had shaggy hair and a 5 day unshaven look going on at the time – and not to offend anybody’s ethnic sensibilities or anything, but he looked like he could reside at Gitmo, if you get my drift.

    Needless to say, the maximum statutory 90-day turnaround time for us to get our permits, has come and gone. I’m just hoping it is due to all the massive backlog caused by the flood of applications they have received. And not due to somebody getting scared to death by those photos.

    Next time I’m smiling, no matter what the robot says.

  • Nick M.

    Gotta love Arizona. My DL doesn’t expire until 2045. Let’s see if I look even remotely close then to what I did when I had photo taken.

  • RED

    ASSHOLES! I am so sick of our nanny state bureaucrats trying to shove safety down our throats. My DL is up for renewal this year and guess what? I’m gonna have the biggest cheese-eating grin I can muster. EFF YOU BIG BRO!!

  • John222


    Apparently, the backlog on Concealed Carry permits has to do with funding. Here is a link with more details:
    If you already have a permit, send your renewal in early.

  • Aimee

    Nick, I always thought that was funny when I lived in Arizona. Nice not to have to go back to the DMV for so long, but dumb on their part. I think before I moved it was due to expire in 2045 also which would put me in my 60’s by then. I’m sure I wouldn’t have changed one bit in that time! :p

  • southernjames

    It’s supposed to take 90 days maximum to get my permit. By state statute. They got my application on February 23rd. After thirty minutes on hold, (following two straight days of getting a busy signal) the bureaucrat told me that it will be “at least” another two months. And she told me (in her broken English) DO NOT call back before the end of July! (170+ days it will be, at that point).

    I just LOVE big government! What’s not to love? I feel so well taken care of. They know what’s best. I bet GM a/k/a the Government Motors Corp., is not going to turn out at ALL like British Leyland or Trabant; and I bet they will make the Bestest Bestest “green,” affordable, high quality tiny hybrids in the whole wide World!! And I can’t WAIT until Aunt Nanny takes over my health care too! What could possibly go wrong?

    Rainbows, unicorns and puppies for everyone!

    I’m feelin the empathy.

  • Akston


  • Quincy

    And she told me (in her broken English) DO NOT call back before the end of July!

    Well, that’s the kind of service one gets when one can’t say no. And people want this for health care *why*?

  • Akston

    The state statute mandates a 90 day turn-around? Did it also establish some sort of penalty for failure to perform? Of course not.

    “Failure to perform” penalties are most effective, responsive, and equitable when they come in the form of enforced contract obligations, lost business and eventual business failure. It’s one of the several thousand reasons why actual free markets are superior to business by bureaucracy.

  • John222

    I don’t know, I went back and read the statute. I don’t see where it says they shall issue within 90 days. It just says they shall issue a license if the applicant….(Fl Statute 790.06). But even if it did specify 90 day response time, what could you do? Call a law enforcement officer?

  • southernjames

    790.06 is a long statute. Further along from where you read….

    790.06 (6)(c). “The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services SHALL, within 90 days after the date of the receipt of items listed in subsection (5):
    1. Issue the license; or
    2. Deny the application based solely on the ground that the applicant fails to qualify under the criteria listed under…..”

    The Department (for tens of thousands of applicants, not just me) is doing neither – due to the backlog of tens of thousands of applications. They don’t have the manpower to handle the flood of applications they have received since around November or so of last year.

    There appears to be no legal recourse available.

  • John222

    southernjames, I stand corrected. I suppose you could sue the state, prisoners do it all the time.