JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – 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 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.
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