New Jersey gets more than its fair share of publicity, but it's usually unwanted or unflattering. The Garden State has been home to The Sopranos, the award winning series about the mob, and Jersey Shore, whose mostly out-of-state resident cast makes us look like we live in a perpetual drunken stupor.

New Jersey drivers are no longer allowed to smile.

Our latest claim to fame is equally dubious. New Jersey Motor Vehicle offices are getting national attention for prohibiting residents from posing with broad toothy grins when they have their drivers' license photos taken. We weren't the first to do this, but we can take credit for blaming it on auto insurance.

It's no secret that facial recognition technology, despite what you see on crime shows, is not an exact science. It measures fixed points on a face, such as distance between the eyes. Then a computer program breaks it down into algorithms that match people with like features.

Facial distortion, such as the muscle tension of a smile, can change a profile and confuse the computer. A frown could probably do this too. But most people want to put on their best face for the camera, so they usually make an effort to smile. And that's not easy, given the long lines you wait in at a New Jersey motor vehicle office.

The reason for recognition

Despite current imperfections, facial recognition software is an important tool that allows law enforcement to search through a photo array of possible suspects when a crime is caught on camera. Customs officers use it to identify terrorists and gambling casinos use it to thwart card-counters. Even the Apple iPhoto has an app to "tag" faces. Our State Department reportedly has a database of 75 million photos, and other countries are close behind.

Face the facts

But New Jersey has been behind the curve when it comes to driver's license photos for some time. College students knew that New Jersey driver's licenses were easy to duplicate if you wanted to go on an under-aged drinking binge. And it wasn't until after 9/11 that our state required all drivers to have photo licenses.

Now New Jersey is using this software to stop those who already have a license from getting another one under a different name.

"That could be someone trying to steal someone else's identity to get insurance benefits..." says Mike Horan of the state Motor Vehicle Commission.

Auto insurance fraud is another major reason why facial recognition is now front and center in New Jersey. Sophisticated crime rings made up of lawyers and chiropractors recruit victims, create fake accidents and then run up bills, which a "no fault" state like ours requires insurers to pay. To keep the scams going, these rings need a steady stream of drivers with different driver's license photos.

And unlike our state, these rings stay ahead of the curve. If you can no longer smile to distort your face, they'll try other tactics, such as tilting the head, growing facial hair, wearing foggy glasses with oversized frames, or all of the above to see what works.

As the fraud become more sophisticated, so will computer countermeasures. Conspiracy theorists think, and perhaps rightly so, that this will turn us into a "total surveillance state": Our cars will tell our insurers where and how we drive, while cameras watch our every move and facial gesture. So maybe there really is nothing to smile about.