Biometrics: Facial Recognition and Iris Scanning

Above: an advertisement on DHS' "Responder Knowledge Base" website. Police agencies nationwide can buy mobile biometrics systems and many other like technologies with DHS funds.

Iris scanning biometric technologies allow for the capture of an individual's unique iris pattern by taking a photograph. Images of irises are stored in databases and used as identifiers like fingerprints. Unlike fingerprints, however, iris scans can be captured from up to six feet away, on surveillance cameras or still cameras, even when the person being photographed is unaware of the spying. The technology and its deployment are advancing rapidly. Iris scans are already being used in law enforcement, immigration enforcement, military surveillance, retail shopping, and in prison-release programs. One manufacturer of iris scanning technology thinks that soon, everyone in the world will use iris scanning for access to buildings, their credit and banking data, and more. He envisions a world in which our eyes are clocked and monitored everywhere we go. 

Like many different surveillance technologies, iris scanning has benefited enormously from military investment in research and development. The US Department of Defense has been using this technology extensively in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq, compiling millions of records.
ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese worries that this technology could be easily used to track ordinary people in the US as they go about their business: 
 
“If you can identify any individual at a distance and without their knowledge, you literally allow the physical tracking of a person anywhere there’s a camera and access to the Internet,” he said. Sound familiar? Watch the clip below to see what can happen when this technology becomes omnipresent.

Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube's privacy statement on their website and Google's privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU's privacy statement, click here.

Facial recognition, like iris scanning, is a biometric identity measurement used to confirm identity matches in a variety of environments, from commercial to law enforcement to drone warfare. Tests performed at Logan Airport in 2003 showed that the technology didn't work very well; it failed to match 38 percent of the people it checked. But since then, industry experts say, the technology has advanced substantially. Homeland Security Newswire writes:

Facial imaging biometrics has refined the technology in recent years with 3D imaging and infra-red cameras overcoming early flaws such as strong sunlight or darkness making a comparison difficult. It is now possible to make a positive identification under any lighting conditions and while the subject is moving towards the camera.

Still, there are problems. In July 2011, a Massachusetts man filed a lawsuit against the state because a face recognition system had identified him as someone else, and sent him a letter warning him not to drive because his license had been suspended. He says that it took far too long to work out the problem and get his name cleared. He was misidentified by a face recognition software program run by the Registrar and the State Police, which was paid for with a $1.5 million grant from DHS. Turns out the system makes more mistakes than manufacturers would like to admit. Last year alone, the machine picked out 1,000 people who contested their identification as misidentification, warranting State Police investigations.

Facial recognition software is one of the thousands of items DHS has authorized federal, state and local grant recipients to buy with their federal dollars. Just like with iris scanning technology, face recognition technology systems are in use throughout all levels of law enforcement in the United States. The Department of Justice maintains the largest collection of face images in their facial recognition data base, containing approximately 75 million entries. 

Mass Focus: Facial Recognition Technology

One company in Massachusetts, Bi2 Technologies, is at the forefront in developing mobile technology for facial recognition systems. In public records requests in June 2010, we asked the Massachusetts Sheriff's Association (MSA), Plymouth County Sheriff's department, Essex County Sheriff's department and Brockton police department for documents related to their expansion of facial recognition technologies. It turns out that the MSA received a large federal grant to procure facial recognition systems for every county jail in Massachusetts, as well as for a number of independent police departments. 

Given what we know about the FBI's "Next Generation Identification" biometrics database, and what we know about the ways in which local governments are increasingly expected to share all of their captured data with the federal government, we can expect that the facial scans of Massachusetts residents are being inputted into these vast databases.

Some people say, "If I'm innocent, I don't need to worry about this." But that's not true. Many people arrested and booked into county jails are completely innocent of any crime; police make mistakes. Furthermore, a July 2011 Wall Street Journal article points out that the police in Brockton who are using mobile facial recognition technology on their iPhones have stated that they can take pictures of anyone they want, regardless of the person's involvement or suspected involvement in crime. These photos can be taken from up to five feet away, and without your knowledge.

Does that make you feel safer?

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