Homeland Security to test iris scans for tracking illegal aliens

September 14, 2010 12:01 PM EDT

Fraud and identity theft make the news nearly every day. The U.S. is moving closer to identity management with the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC), but systems based on usernames and passwords have proven to be hackable and insecure in the past. Most of us resist change, especially if it is radically different from what we are used to, but what if we could do away with fraud completely by using the most unique biometric scale? It's not fingerprinting or facial recognition; the most secure and unique biometric identifier is the iris.

For two weeks in early October, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will test Global Rainmakers Inc (GRI) iris scanners at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas. Arun Vemury, program manager at Homeland Security's Science and Technology branch, told USA Today that the iris scans "will be used on illegal immigrants." A database of stored digital images of people's eyes are a "quicker alternative to fingerprints."

Many people's knee-jerk reaction to iris scanners is that Big Brother is coming. If iris scanning technology is misused, then it could paint a terrifying picture. But consider this first: When you enter another country, you must show your passport. Whether or not you are a fan of RFID, a passport is the current price to travel the world. You can choose not to show your passport, but you won't be happily let into that country. If the iris becomes the key, and someday replaces the passport, then there will be no need for other documents. There are still choices if you decide iris scans are evil; you could choose to close your eyes and not be scanned.  

The iris scan works while a person is in motion and at a distance of 24 inches to over 15 feet easily, said Jeff Carter, Corporate Development Officer and Chief Strategist (CDO) of Global Rainmakers, in a phone interview. Iris scans are fast, accurate, and entirely opt-in. "Your iris is completely unique. There is no chance of fraud." GRI has done extensive iris scan research on huge record sets and has not found any indication that ethnicity, eye color, contacts, or glasses would render the scan ineffective. Fingerprints can be "disguised" with cuts. Facial recognition can be altered by bruising the face or other identity altering factors.  The iris is much more difficult to alter.

Here's a quick look at iris scanners by Global Rainmakers.

Carter headed a think tank partnership between Bank of America, Harvard, and MIT before coming to GRI. He said privacy discussions about iris scans and how that information will be used, with all opinions from the right and from the left, are important conversations and need to take place. Some of the scarier aspects that are being said about iris scans could be said about almost any program. His example included a loyalty program and a local grocery store. A person who was concerned about their privacy could read the fine print and possibly discover that the grocery store has all kinds of information about you and your personal life. The store might sell that information to a third party. For example, if you drink alcohol or eat lots of red meat, your grocery store might sell that information to your health insurance provider. Your provider could then cancel your health insurance policy.

In August, DHS released the document, Privacy Impact Assessment for the Iris and Face Technology Demonstration and Evaluation which states, "personal identifiers are not linked to the iris images, biographic information, or facial images." It will be posted that the iris scans at the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, are on an opt-in basis. This is a test and only a test at this point, research and analysis purposes only, according to the DHS document. "The purpose of this project is to evaluate the performance and utility of prototype iris cameras in a "real-world'' setting. The DHS/S&T 001 SORN routine enables DHS to share the data with "contractors and their agents, grantees, experts, consultants, and others performing or working on a contract, service, grant, cooperative agreement, or other assignment for DHS, when necessary to accomplish an agency function related to this system of records." It further states, "At the conclusion of the project, all biometric and biographic data will be destroyed, rendering access impossible."

Iris scans could change the world business models and accountability standards. Iris scan databases could be used by banking, financial, or health institutions. It could change privacy as a whole and how we deal with the world as a whole. Depending how systems are set-up, iris scans have the capability to provide identification and provide certain shields of anonymity, Carter said. Your iris is 100% unique; once scanned and put into a database, your identity won't be stolen or misused.

Only time will tell if the government does as it says and destroys the iris scan information, and if scans stay opt-in. Some government agencies have not proven trustworthy in the past. But most of us are tracked now by banking institutions that know every place and every item for which we use our debit card. Our cell phone records keep track of who we call and our GPS locations.

This isn't exactly the same system, but what do you think of this iris scanning scenario? Could iris scans provide the real-time security needed to put a stop to fraud and identity theft? Or does a future of iris scanners everywhere seem like your idea of privacy hell?