HOLMBERG: Why do Virginia driver’s licenses look like mugshots?

Posted at 12:32 AM, Oct 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-23 07:14:39-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Perhaps more than any other photograph, your driver’s license represents you. It’s the one you have to show to employers, cops, other officials, store clerks and a host of other strangers.

So why is it often - in the Old Dominion -  it’s the worst photo ever of you?

“It makes me look fat,” said one thin young woman.

“Makes you look like you’re on the FBI’s most wanted list,” said an older woman walking through Carytown.

“With this picture right here, I already look guilty, and I have not done anything,” said a young man reclining outside of a nearby restaurant.

“Like a mug shot, but not like a Lindsay Lohan way,” said a sharply dressed young woman walking down the sidewalk. “Like in a bad, bad way.”

The photos are basically black and white, with you standing in front of a white background. It adds years, shadows, a grimness to many people. Facial features are exaggerated, or unfamiliar.

And you’re not allowed to openly smile.

“I love smiling,” said one woman walking out of the W. Broad Street DMV. The worker inside told her to can the smile, and she had to pose with a face that didn’t feel natural, she said.

DMV Spokesperson Sunni Brown tells me these so-called grayscale photographs are actually embedded in the card, making fraud all-but impossible.

As far as the non-toothy smile policy, it’s part of the facial recognition technology they MAY use in the future.

Already, the Washington Post reports, 26 states are allowing police to use facial recognition technology to scan driver’s license photo databases to match and catch criminals.

For example, someone snaps cell phone videos or photos of someone fleeing a marathon bombing. Police plug that in and, viola, instant suspect.

Not exactly Constitutional and quite 1984ish, but dang handy for catching crooks and idiots in our increasingly surveilled culture.

And not exactly flattering.

“Like worse than my mugshot,” another young woman said unashamedly. “You want to look at it?” she added, pulling out her license. “It’s terrible.”

And it really didn’t look like her. “No. . . it’s DMV. It’s like the worst day of your life.”

“It doesn’t even look like me at all,” said another young man walking though Carytown. “At all.”

Another man in his 20s or so pulled out his relatively new driver’s license that used a photo of him when he was like 15 years old. He had applied for it through the mail and DMV didn’t request a new photo.

“I don’t like it when I’m trying to buy beer I look like I’m 15-years old.”

Several people we interviewed said their likeness is so unlike them, store clerks reject them or question their honesty.

“People at the grocery store say ‘is this like a fake?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s not. It’s (just) bad!’”

So in this brave new world of high-tech facial recognition photography, we’re not supposed to look like ourselves?

As the sunny Sunni Brown says, "Virginia driver’s licenses and ID cards are some of the most secure in the nation.”

But they’re making us feel insecure.

Could we at least not look like serial killers? Is that too much to ask?