Feds Significantly Expand The Use Of Iris-Recognition Technology

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
By Paul Martin

By Aliya Sternstein

Staring into a camera with eyes wide open for an iris snapshot may become an alternative to waiting in line at the airport.

The Homeland Security Department is considering branching out from fingerprint matching to iris and facial recognition for identity verification, say current and former DHS officials.

DHS agencies already have begun testing the iris technology on suspected illegal immigrants at Border Patrol stations.

“The department is exploring additional biometric modalities such as face and iris to determine what may be possible to implement in our operational environments, whether it be for enforcement or Trusted Traveler programs,” Kimberly Weissman, spokeswoman for the office of US-VISIT, which is responsible for Homeland Security’s ID database, told Nextgov. Homeland Security’s Trusted Traveler initiatives allow certain low-risk American and foreign international passengers to sail through U.S. airport security by consenting to background checks and fingerprinting.

In the “near future,” she added, US-VISIT and Customs and Border Protection officials will try out technologies that match irises, and potentially faces, of people officials suspect have entered the country illegally in Texas. The program is a follow-up to an earlier iris trial.

“The pilot is planned for the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, and will test the feasibility and accuracy of iris capture and matching in an operational environment,” CBP spokeswoman Stephanie Malin said. “This also includes storing a facial recognition-quality photograph.”

Homeland Security’s experimentation with analyzing physical characteristics other than fingerprints to confirm identity and to detect fraud coincides with other recent ventures into multimedia biometrics governmentwide. This week, the Obama administration announced preliminary procedures for embedding iris images into federal employee identification cards and the FBI is propping up a repository of iris files to augment its fingerprinting database, partly by collecting images from municipal jails that use iris recognition for tracking prisoners. The bureau’s criminal ID database, which added a small facial recognition program in early 2012, is undergoing a multiyear $1 billion upgrade to accommodate many physical characteristics, such as vocal recordings or photographs of tattoos.

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