If you get pulled over while driving through Plymouth County, Mass., do not be alarmed if the police officer asks to take your picture with his iPhone. He simply wants to capture your irises for comparison against the county’s database in order to verify your identity and see if you have any warrants outstanding.
BI2 Technologies president and CEO Sean Mullin capturing his own iris using the MORIS.
“Everyone has distinctly different irises,” says Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald Jr. “In contrast, identical twins have the same DNA, which means that you can’t tell which one committed a crime. But with an iris scan, you can.”
The speed and accuracy of iris scanning technology is winning over police departments across the United States, as they deal with tech-savvy criminals who know how to lie electronically, as well as in person. “Violence against citizens has hit a level higher than we ever thought, with criminals becoming more vicious than ever,” says Pinal County (Ariz.) Sheriff Paul Babeu. Iris scanning technology helps identify potential suspects quickly, and get them off the streets sooner, he said.
Both Plymouth and Pinal Counties are using irisscanning cameras built by Biometric Intelligence & Identification Technologies (BI2), which offers two iris-scanning systems, the Inmate Identification and Recognition System (IRIS) and the Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS).
IRIS is used at the counties’ correctional facilities whenever inmates are admitted or released. “It’s very easy: The inmates simply look into the camerafitted eyepieces, and we take digital photos of their irises,” says Babeu. “When we compare them to our database, we can find out if they are giving us their real identities, because many ‘frequent flyers’ [repeat offenders] don’t, and if there are outstanding warrants for them from other jurisdictions.”
The iPhone inside the MORIS case showing the keyboard display. Photo courtesy of BI2 Technologies
Conducting iris scans at release also pays off: “There have been instances where inmates have deliberately switched identities, resulting in dangerous criminals being let out by mistake,” Babeu said. “That hasn’t happened in our county, and thanks to iris recognition, it never will.”
But it is MORIS that really has Babeu and McDonald excited. MORIS is a smartphone-attachable device that allows officers to take digital photos of irises anywhere in the field, and send them back by commercial wireless for immediate verification. “In fact, MORIS supports fingerprint collection, facial recognition and iris recognition,” says Sheriff McDonald. “It is a very powerful device that vastly improves the identification process.”
Clearly, MORIS enables officers in the field to do their job more effectively for it provides law enforcement officials to know—with a simple digital iris scan—whether someone who has been stopped is truthful about their identity.
In Pinal County, which covers a landmass larger than the state of Connecticut, that kind of capability is sorely needed. “Given our size, it can take a deputy up to 90 minutes to get back to a location where an iris scanner is available,” Babeu said. “When he’s out on the road dealing with people who claim not to have identification —such as criminals or illegal immigrants—this forces him to make a judgement call, because he has a lot of area to cover. And even if he gives them a citation and they sign it promising to appear in court, there is no guarantee that they will appear after he lets them go.”
In one such recent instance in Pinal County, a car that was stopped contained riders claiming to not their identifications with them. The deputy making the stop requested the assistance of from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Involving ICE was fortunate because once the vehicle’s passengers were processed and fingerprinted, it turned out that one rider had a felony warrant outstanding, and that another was a sex offender, Babeu said. However, if the deputy had a MORIS at hand—both Pinal and Plymouth Counties are in the process of acquiring them—he would have learned the identities of those being sought in a few short seconds by the roadside.
The flip side of the MORIS with the camera opening and a thumbprint scanner. Photo courtesy of BI2 Technologies
By providing near-instant suspect identification, MORIS also makes it easier for police to track habitual criminals and sex offenders who move into an area from another location. Being able to identify sex offenders quickly allows police to alert parents, schools, and relevant agencies about the offender’s presence in the community. Iris scanning can also be used to identify potential terrorists and other threats to national security; potentially saving the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of American citizens.
Whenever law enforcement gains access to a new form of identification technology—be it CCTV video, DNA analysis, or forensic tracking of hackers over the Internet—there is usually a backlash from people concerned about their civil rights. Iris scanning is no exception: In response to Plymouth County’s upcoming deployment of MORIS devices—as part of a statewide pilot program involving 14 counties—the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is seeking details about the trials. In a news release dated June 22, 2010, the ACLUM asked, “The use of these technologies raises serious civil liberties questions: Who will be subject to being photographed and entered into a database? Will information be shared with other local or federal law enforcement agencies?”
Babeu and McDonald each raised this civil liberties issue. “In many cases, we already use biometric identification – namely fingerprints – to do background checks on people wanting to be policemen, firefighters, correctional guards, and even Boy Scout leaders,” Babeu said. “Applying iris scans to the same areas, as well as to law enforcement, will not limit civil rights. In fact, it will protect them, by ensuring that such checks are truly fair and accurate.”
“The fears being expressed about iris scans are linked to the notion that biometrics are somehow new and sinister,” McDonald added. “But biometrics go back to the days of Scotland Yard and Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, the ‘Wanted’ posters of the Old West were a form of biometrics; namely facial recognition!”
As for the fear that iris scanning will lead to a ‘Big Brother’ state? “No matter what technology we have at hand, we must work within the rules we already have,” replies Babeu said. “For instance, if I stop you by the side of the road and ask if I can search your car, you have the right to say ‘no’. You can even say ‘yes’, and then change your mind as the search is happening; forcing me to stop. Iris scanning will be used the same way. We are not going to force you to do it without probable cause.”
The accuracy and speed of iris scanning make it a natural application for law enforcement, so do not be surprised to see MORIS units turning up in your neighborhood. Lawabiding citizens have nothing to fear, while fugitives do.