Report: FBI Hopes To Launch Iris-Scan Database To Track Criminals

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 5 2012 6:30 PM

Report: FBI Hopes To Launch Iris-Scan Database To Track Criminals

First it was fingerprints, then DNA. Now databases of iris scans are next on the biometrics list for law enforcement agencies in their efforts to track criminals.

As part of a $1 billion upgrade, the FBI is implementing a Next-Generation Identification System that will expand its old fingerprint database to allow for “rapid matching” of physical identifiers including iris scans, facial images, and palm prints, Mashable reported today.

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The FBI, which is reportedly working with Massachusetts-based BI2 Technologies, aims to launch a pilot nationwide database of iris scans by 2014. The FBI has already been provided with more than 12,000 iris images from “current law enforcement agency clients” for analysis and testing, according to BI2’s president, Sean G. Mullin.

This isn’t a wholly new development. BI2 says agencies in 47 states have been gathering iris data in prisons as part of an inmate identification scheme for six years. The company is also rolling out a biometric device—built into an iPhone app—that can be used remotely to recognize and identify people based on iris, face, or fingerprint.

There are obvious civil liberties concerns around collecting ever more kinds of biometric data on a nationwide scale, even if only of convicts. BI2 says that its iris technology addresses privacy issues because subjects have to “agree to enroll and participate” in order to have their eyes photographed. But because currently all of BI2’s iris scans from across the United States are stored centrally on a server located in Texas, the ultimate safety and security of the technology is questionable. Though the iris scans are encrypted, there is always the possibility hackers could gain access.

In addition to what the FBI is calling an “iris repository,” it is also further embracing facial recognition technology. Last year the agency revealed that it wants to allow local police to identify unknown subjects in photos. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, biometrics are also on the Department of Homeland Security’s agenda. The DHS is building a program called Future Attribute Screening Technology that it hopes will "detect cues indicative of mal-intent" based on factors including ethnicity, gender, breathing, and heart rate.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

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