Security Theatre Of The Absurdby Brad Warbiany
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