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June 19, 2013

State photo-ID databases become troves for police

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

Las Vegas police, for example, called on authorities two states away in Nebraska for help solving a homicide. Based on a tip, investigators had a page from a social-media site featuring the image of an unknown suspect; the tipster said the woman in the photo had lived in Nebraska. The facial-recognition software produced a hit on a driver's license there, cracking open the case.

"That picture hung on our wall for a long time," said Betty Johnson, vehicle services administrator in Nebraska. "We are pretty darn proud of that one."

A single private contractor, MorphoTrust USA, which is based in a suburban Boston office park but is owned by French industrial conglomerate Safran, dominates the field of government facial-recognition technology systems. Its software operates in systems for the State Department, the FBI and the Defense Department. Most facial-recognition systems installed in driver's-license registries use the company's technology, it says.

The largest facial database belongs to the State Department and includes about 230 million searchable images, split almost equally between foreigners who apply for visas and U.S. citizens who hold passports. Access for police investigations, though, is more limited than with state driver's-license databases.

The FBI's own facial-recognition database has about 15 million criminal mug shots. Bureau officials are pushing to expand that by tens of millions more by encouraging states to upload their criminal justice photos into the national system. The FBI does not collect driver's-license images, but the bureau has developed access to state systems that do.

That effort began with"Project Facemask," which compared images of federal suspects and fugitives against photos in North Carolina's driver's-license registry, helping identify a double-homicide suspect who had changed his name and moved to that state from California. The FBI now has agreements giving access to driver's-license databases in 10 states for investigative purposes. Many motor vehicle officials say they also run searches for federal agents who request them, typically through "fusion centers" that ease the sharing of information among state, local and federal authorities.

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