Using Facial Recognition to Fight Terror

During the 1940s, supporting the war effort was everyone's job. The old slogan was, "Loose lips sink ships."

Now being tight-lipped is once again a patriotic duty — at least in Britain, and at least for passport photos. The new watchword is: "Don't smile."

For a U.S. passport, it's still legal to say, "Cheese!" and give a big grin. But in Britain, and a growing number of other countries, concern about terrorism is literally wiping the smiles from people's faces.

The U.K. recently adopted strict new rules for passport photos: Face forward, look straight at the camera, expression neutral, no smiling, and, God forbid, no teeth.

Britain isn't alone. Canada banned smiling a year ago. In fact, more than 100 other nations are expected to do the same, under new standards adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The reason given is biometrics scanners, which use facial recognition technology to compare a passport photo with pictures of every known terrorist in the world. Some officials insist that teeth can botch the process — hence the ban on smiling.

Some Britons don't seem too worried.

"Seems like a good idea," said one young British man applying for his first U.K. passport.

"I always thought you couldn't smile for a passport picture anyway," said another young woman.

‘Annie Liebowitz’ of Passport Photos

But Peter Gilbert doesn't like the ban one bit. Gilbert runs Passport Photo Service, a small hole-in-the-wall photo studio on Oxford Street in London, just around the corner from the U.S. embassy in Grovesnor Square.

Gilbert is sort of the Annie Liebowitz of passport photographers. In 50 years, he has taken a 2-by-2 snapshot of just about every celebrity in London who has ever applied for a U.S. visa or a new U.S. passport.

Even celebrities apparently can't just breeze past immigration officials, saying, "Don't you know who I am??"

The black-and-white pictures are laid out on the wall of Gilbert's studio in frames, like pages from some incredible high school yearbook. There are pictures of all four Beatles, just before the British invasion.

There's a picture of Mohammad Ali, who had to obtain a passport as he traveled to Zaire to fight George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. Douglas Fairbanks, Sean Connery, Joan Collins, Daniel Day Lewis, Madonna and Woody Allen all have spots on the wall.

Mick Jagger had his passport photo taken at home against his kitchen wall, the only white wall in his London house, his body positioned so as to obscure the electric can opener hanging on the wall behind him. The Rolling Stones later used the very picture on one of their album liners.

"Only the Queen doesn't have a passport," said Gilbert. Everyone else, it seems, comes to him.

But plenty of the celebs will probably have to get their passport pictures redone under the new rules. Elton John's toothy grin simply won't pass muster under the new rules.

"It's no fun," said Gilbert. "Now we have to do — regardless — face forward, standing stiff. And that takes all the fun out of taking pictures."

Is the Ban Necessary?

But is this all really necessary? Mustafa Koita, who is an executive at Identix, a company that has developed a biometrics system for use by the Homeland Security Department, doesn't think so.

He demonstrated the computer system, showing how teeth, glasses, age and excess weight are no match for the biometrics system.

"The system," said Koita, "is robust enough to deal with smiling."

It makes it all the more puzzling that the Brits have banned smiling. The U.S. State Department, after all, still encourages people to smile for their passport photos.

British Restraint or Bad Dentistry?

Some speculate there may be some other reason for the new rule.

Perhaps it says something about the national character of Britain and Canada, where restraint is a raison d'etre. Perhaps a tight-lipped frown is the face Britain wants to show to the world

Or maybe, just maybe, it says something about Britain's national self-consciousness about the quality of British dentistry.