Eye on crime: The FBI is building a database of iris scans


The bureau is tapping into the proliferation of biometric data state and local law enforcement agencies are collecting.

The FBI plans to test by 2014 a database for searching iris scans nationwide to more quickly track criminals, according to budget documents and a contractor working on the project.

The Next-Generation Identification system, a multiyear $1 billion program already under way, is expanding the server capacity of the FBI’s old fingerprint database to allow for rapid matching of additional physical identifiers, including facial images and palm prints.

Today, iris scans conjure images of covert agents accessing high-security banks and laboratories. But, increasingly, law enforcement agencies are spending state and federal funds on iris recognition technology at jails to monitor inmates. Some Missouri prisons are buying the same system the FBI acquired, partly so that they can eventually exchange iris images with federal law enforcement officials. And many counties are storing pictures of prisoner irises in a nationwide database managed by a private company, BI2 Technologies.

The FBI expects to collect many of these state and local iris images, according to B12 officials and federal documents.

A May 17 budget justification document states one of the “planned accomplishments for BY13” -- the budget year that begins Oct. 1 -- is to “demonstrate iris recognition capabilities via the iris pilot.”

A June FBI advisory board memo that Nextgov reviewed states, “supervised release/corrections are candidates for the pilot, being that many already have the capability in place. The additional goal is to start to build an iris repository.” Iris recognition is a helpful identification tool, according to the memo, because it “is very accurate,” does not require human intervention and “the hardware footprint is also very small [due] to the size of the iris image.”

The aim of iris recognition at corrections facilities, according to law enforcement officials, is to promptly catch repeat offenders and suspects who try to hide their identities.

Building a Repository

Officials at the Pinal County Adult Detention Center in Florence, Ariz., appreciate the nonintrusiveness of the BI2 iris recognition system, which does not touch prisoners’ faces when snapping photos of irises or scanning eyes for recognition. The inmates place their eyes three to 10 inches away from binocular-like lenses, which record the iris image, so wardens stay out of harm’s way during head counts, county officials said. The technology also ensures the center does not mistakenly release similar-looking siblings, twins or parents, when one family member comes up for parole, they added.

President and Chief Executive Officer Sean G. Mullin said BI2 Technologies has been working closely with the FBI unit chief responsible for implementing NGI. “BI2 Technologies provided the FBI [Next-Generation Identification system] over 12,000 iris images from current law enforcement agency clients for analysis and testing by NGI,” he said. Company officials said they were not aware of a specific pilot program that has been undertaken to demonstrate iris searching capabilities.

Mullin said his company was told the FBI plans to conduct an iris pilot in 2014. Local agencies in 47 states now participate in B12’s nationwide Inmate Identification and Recognition System, or IRIS, which has been operating for six years, he said.

FBI officials declined to comment on progress using NGI for iris matching. “Because we are in the early stages of development of additional biometric capabilities, including the facial recognition pilot, there is no new information to report at this time,” said Stephen G. Fischer Jr., a spokesman for the FBI’s criminal justice information services division.

The interstate network that BI2 maintains uses a high-resolution camera to obtain an image of an offender’s iris during the booking process. Special software then transforms the picture into a digital file that is encrypted and stored with the company. For recognition purposes, the camera takes a live shot of an individual’s iris and the software then compares the new image with archived iris pictures collected during intake to confirm the person’s identity.

“Everybody that gets booked into our adult detention center, we get a capture of their iris. That gets hooked to their photo. And then everybody that’s being released goes through the system again to make sure we’re getting ready to release the same person,” said James Kimble, deputy chief of the Pinal County Adult Detention Center.

Pinal County used $30,000 in state funds to buy three cameras, supporting devices and access to BI2’s nationwide iris database, he said. Within a few months, some Pinal patrol officers will receive a handheld recognition tool that synchs with the database through an iPhone app.

The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona also is using iris recognition for many of the same safety purposes, said Dwight D’Evelyn, media/crime prevention coordinator for the office. Yavapai contracts with BI2 using in-house jail enhancement funds. “The data is stored in both the system of record at the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office and the national server,” he said. “The iris images are stored, accessed and utilized by participating agencies on the national server, which is located at a secure site in Texas.”

D’Evelyn stressed that the iris files are the property of the sheriff’s office and, “during transmission, the iris images are always encrypted.”

Security Concerns

Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, found the concept of a privately run, national iris network disconcerting because of the many recent data breaches at businesses. She cited financial institutions exposing customer account data and passwords stolen from job seekers using the professional networking website LinkedIn.

“That's really concerning to me -- the fact that they are held by a private company,” Lynch said. “You can change your credit card data. But you can't change your biometric data.”

Oftentimes, however, the data cribbed during these incidents was not adequately encrypted, cybersecurity experts are quick to note.

BI2’s iris images are “encrypted using strong cryptographic algorithms to secure and protect them,” the company website states. “Thus, standing alone, biometric templates cannot be reconstructed, decrypted, reverse-engineered or otherwise manipulated to reveal a person's identity. In short, biometrics can be thought of as a very secure key: Unless a biometric gate is unlocked by using the right key, no one can gain access to a person's identity.”

The average iris recognition time -- from when an image is captured to when an officer receives a response -- is 7.8 seconds, Mullin said.

“No agency -- and there are more than 400 BI2 systems in operation across the nation -- that has implemented BI2’s IRIS technology has ever had an erroneous or mistaken release because of an identification error,” he said.

During a six-month period at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, BI2’s system immediately spotted 119 repeat offenders previously booked by the department who provided different names and identification to avoid detection, Mullin said.

The June FBI advisory board memo states the bureau has chosen an L-1/MorphoTrust iris capture system for NGI. (L-1 Identity Solutions was acquired in 2011 by Safran and reorganized as MorphoTrust.) In 2011, the Missouri Sheriff’s Association bought the same system using federal grant money partly so the association’s database could eventually interface with NGI, said Jeff Merriman, a grant consultant for law enforcement agencies. He also works part time for the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office in Missouri, where he was a former police commander.

Jasper and more than 50 other Missouri agencies are hooked up to the association’s central system for statewide sharing, he said.

“Not only are we capturing multibiometrics at jails and prisons, we are also linking dozens of disparate criminal records systems across the state, connecting the dots between all the offenders and using that information tactically to combat crime,” Merriman said.

But the Missouri iris scans can’t get to the FBI. The problem is the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which is responsible for sharing criminal history records with the FBI, doesn’t have an iris database to collect the state’s iris files, he said. The FBI visited the Missouri Sheriff’s Association biometric system as part of the bureau’s NGI research, according to Merriman.

Now, he is working with law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma and Tennessee to acquire grant money for starting iris database systems that can connect with the Missouri Sheriff’s Association biometric system.

Separately, York County Prison in Pennsylvania has been using an LG Electronics iris recognition system for about a decade, prison spokesman Joe Borgiel said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Lynch said she was concerned by the breadth of iris recognition in the law enforcement realm. That said, she added, iris scans can be less sneaky than facial searches, which governments and social networks such as Facebook are embracing. Nextgov reported in 2011 that the FBI would begin a limited trial of facial recognition in early 2012.

“With iris scans and facial recognition, one of the differences is you can take a picture of a face surreptitiously,” Lynch said.

Thomas E. Bush III, who helped develop NGI's system requirements when he served as assistant director of the FBI’s criminal justice information services division between 2005 and 2009, acknowledged people will worry about authorities combing through candid videos and photos for suspects, and, inadvertently, collecting images of innocent passersby.

“I’m an American citizen. I get that,” he said, but, “no, we will obtain these from the people who come into contact with law enforcement.”

Bush, now a private consultant, added, “It’s not public source data.” And, the FBI would not upload a bank vault’s iris database into NGI. “The FBI’s No. 1 priority is protection of civil rights,” he said.

In 2008, the bureau distributed a privacy impact assessment describing controls to ensure NGI complies with federal privacy regulations. FBI officials have said the bureau has an elaborate system of checks and balances to guard irises, palm prints, mug shots and all manner of criminal history data.

“The information sharing of the future is biometrically based,” Bush said. “That’s when you know that you have Tom Bush. This makes me more confident that I do have the right [bad] Tom Bush and then the good Tom Bush goes on his merry way. It’s about getting the right bad guy . . . We’ve got limited resources.”

(Image via evantravels /Shutterstock.com)