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State photo biometrics plan in limbo

With its financing in jeopardy, Missouri has slowed work on a high-tech computer program intended to catch potential fraud or criminals by conducting a biometric analysis — or facial recognition — of digital photographs taken for state driver’s licenses and identification cards.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of an email recently sent by the manager of Missouri’s driver’s license bureau to employees at MorphoTrust USA, a state driver’s license contractor, with a subject line of “Photo Validation Project Canceled.” But Missouri’s budget director said Tuesday that the state merely is trying to avoid racking up new costs for the project while legislators consider a budget proposal that could eliminate funding for the contract.

The Missouri program would match photos of people applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses with thousands of existing photos in the state’s driver’s license database, with the intent of catching people trying to obtain false or multiple identities. The ability to use computer programs to identify people in photos has been a hot topic both nationally and in Missouri, though for two different reasons.

MorphoTrust provides facial recognition technology to the U.S. government and Massachusetts, where the FBI last week publicized surveillance camera photos of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. MorphoTrust also has been working to implement a photo validation program through the Missouri Department of Revenue, which has faced heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers concerned about an invasion of privacy rights.

On Monday night, the Missouri Senate passed a 2014 budget plan that would strip funding for the state’s contract with MorphoTrust, though both the Senate and House still must approve a final version of the budget. With funding for the contract in limbo, state driver’s license bureau manager Norma Hensiek sent an email dated last Thursday to two MorphoTrust officials indicating the project was “canceled.”

“Effective immediately, we have been instructed to stop working on our Photo Validation project,” Hensiek wrote in the email. “Please let me know what financial obligations we have incurred as of today.”

But there appears to have been some confusion within Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration about the contract’s status.

“A contract has not been canceled. I think that’s a case that she has misspoke,” Office of Administration spokeswoman Misti Preston said Tuesday.

State budget director Linda Luebbering, who is part of the Office of Administration, said Tuesday she had raised concern about the potential elimination of funding for the MorphoTrust contract in a conversation with the acting director of the Department of Revenue, which oversees the licensing bureau.

“We should probably make sure, at least in the short run, that we’re not incurring new unnecessary costs,” Luebbering said. “But nothing was put on hold — it was basically just take a look at it, and if there are brand new things we are going to start on, we should probably slow them down a bit.”

Luebbering said the intent was merely to advise MorphoTrust of potential funding problems.

Representatives of MorphoTrust were at the Missouri Capitol on Tuesday talking with lawmakers about the merits of the photo matching technology, but those representatives declined to comment to the AP about the status of the contract. The company has developed software that converts photographs into mathematical algorithms, which are run through a computer to see whether a photo of a person’s face matches up with any other photos on file.

MorphoTrust representatives in Missouri were distributing a March news release from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing that facial recognition technology had resulted in more than 2,500 arrests in the past three years. South Carolina also has touted the success of its facial recognition searches in identifying fraud cases and criminal suspects.

But some Republican lawmakers said the potential for crime fighting is trumped by the need for privacy. Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said it would be a “positive step” if Missouri canceled the photo validation contract.

“I don’t want to live in an America where in the name of security we’ve completely destroyed privacy, and I think we’re approaching that line with things like biometric analysis and photo validation,” Richardson said.

Sen. Will Kraus, who like Richardson is sponsoring legislation to block the photo biometrics, raised concerns that the biometrics analysis of driver’s license photos could be used for other purposes by an over-reaching government.

“You get into a situation where if you have a photo and it gets out there and they do the biometrics on it, now all of the sudden any time you go by a traffic camera, they can know exactly where you are,” said Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit.

This article expands on information first reported Tuesday.

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