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FBI to start querying national iris index this year


Later this year, the FBI expects to begin using scanned images of criminals’ eyes to verify the right convicts are released after completing their sentences and those on the lam are recaptured.

Following an arguably successful launch of a nationwide facial recognition trial in 2012, the bureau is on track to try another novel identification technique in September, FBI officials said.  Both tests are part of a $1 billion upgrade of the bureau’s fingerprint ID system. “We’re about 65 percent of the way for development,” Brian Edgell, unit chief for the FBI’s new biometric system, said at an information-sharing forum organized by the IJIS Institute, a nonprofit membership organization for IT companies.

Work that remains to be done on the Next Generation Identification system includes incorporating repositories of scars, marks, and tattoos, as well as irises – the colored portion of the eye.

The iris experiment will run for about a year, Edgell said.

Many state and local prisons already scan inmates’ irises so that guards are out of harm’s way during headcounts and to make sure imposters are not let out of jail. The FBI now is working with those jurisdictions and courts using similar technology to build a central database of irises.

If the iris searching works and the bureau can amass enough imagery files, police nationwide should be able to run background checks faster and more precisely, advocates say. Civil liberties advocates fear the result will be a virtual warehouse of personal data for stalkers, identity thieves and others.

The FBI also is in the midst of incorporating tools to speed responses to queries from Customs and Border Protection, Edgell said. By law the Homeland Security Department’s biometric system must be able to exchange digital identifiers with the FBI’s system.

The whole program, however, depends on states being willing and able to submit iris patterns and other image files from sometimes incompatible systems. The iris effort will require investing in high-resolution cameras, special software for formatting the pictures, and technical expertise. “This is a significant state effort,” Edgell said.

The next-gen system will not cross-check DNA samples, leaving that task to the FBI’s existing genetic material index, CODIS, he told Nextgov during an interview. Voice recognition is not part of system development requirements either, but has been discussed as a future enhancement, Edgell said.

Because of the magnitude of the entire endeavor, the iris test will require approval from the Office of Management and Budget before September, Edgell said.

As of June, the Justice Department reported the project was within budget, with $220.49 million spent during 2012, and on schedule to fully operate in 2014.

(Image via ollyy/

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