Once largely confined to the realm of science fiction, iris recognition technology is emerging as a tool for agencies that want to add an extra layer to their biometrics identification programs.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is developing new standards for iris recognition — a method of identification that relies on the unique patterns in the colored parts of an individual’s eyes. Those standards, which were released in draft form earlier this year, will provide guidelines for agencies to store iris information on employee identification cards. Several agencies — including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department — have tested or plan to test the technology for a number of applications.
“As time goes by, it gets more and more popular, and there’s more availability than there used to be,” says Patrick Grother, a computer scientist at NIST who specializes in biometric standards and performance.
The Quest for Multiple Biometric Identifiers
Grother says the interest in iris recognition stems largely from agencies’ desire for multiple biometric identifiers, rather than having to rely solely on fingerprints. Some people can’t be fingerprinted because of arthritis or damaged skin, he says. “If fingerprints don’t work, then iris will.”
DHS has tested different iris camera configurations along the U.S. border with Mexico and could use the technology to quickly identify someone who had previously been detained, Grother says. The State Department also has tested the technology, he adds, and could use iris scanning in addition to fingerprints for people applying for visas.
In September, the FBI will launch a pilot to determine whether to create a national database of iris scans as part of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, a $1 billion, 10-year multimodal upgrade of its existing fingerprint registry.
Brian Edgell, an NGI unit chief and part of the team that will head up the pilot, says it will take around 18 to 24 months to complete. The FBI will partner with about a dozen organizations, such as correctional facilities and sheriff’s departments, that are already using iris recognition.
“Our methodology is to partner with those folks who are doing it,” Edgell explains, “then learn what we can about how it works, what the benefits are and what it costs to operate a system like this.”
Edgell predicts that iris scanning will remain secondary to fingerprinting, although the FBI will explore whether “latent” iris images lifted from photographs could aid investigations.
Michael Kirkpatrick, a biometrics consultant based in Morgantown, W.Va., says most security cameras lack the resolution for good iris images. Still, he says, there are benefits to the technology.
“People can destroy their fingerprints. They can significantly change their looks through plastic surgery,” he says. “Your iris is pretty hard to do anything with.”