Calif. sheriff to scan irises of sex offenders

By Demian Bulwa
The San Francisco Chronicle
Related: L.E. agencies fine-tune face ID

ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. The Alameda County Sheriff's Office is preparing to become the first public agency in the Bay Area to force some convicts to submit to iris scanning, a strategy that may jump-start debate about how police should use a powerful and emerging technology.

Each human iris has a unique texture, and its contours can be mapped in a searchable database. Proponents of the technology say it won't replace fingerprinting, but that it offers a speedier and more accurate way to identify people whether they are suspects at the scene of a crime or inmates being freed.

Authorities plan to begin scanning the irises of the county's 2,500 sex offenders within a few weeks - when they register during a move or when they check in annually as required by law. There are no plans yet to expand the scanning to others.

Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a sheriff's department spokesman, said the county is expanding its tracking of sex offenders in response to a recent federal law calling for building a national sex offender registry.

Nelson acknowledged that the program, which carries no cost because a company donated the first iris scanner, has little practical use today. No law enforcement agencies now scan irises of criminal suspects during everyday police work, which would allow for potential matches with a database. And unlike fingerprints, criminals never leave their irises at the scene of a crime.

But Nelson said his department wanted to test the technology and prepare for a future in which many police agencies scan irises and officers carry handheld scanners.

In this scenario, he said, an officer might be able to quickly identify a sex offender or parolee who gives a fake name. An officer who received a complaint about a person annoying a child, Nelson said, might scan that person's eyes. Within seconds, the officer would know if the person was a sex offender.

"We're at the infancy of this whole thing," Nelson said.

When sex offenders register, Nelson said, they will have to briefly hold their head about a foot away from the scanner, which uses a digital camera to capture an image of an iris - which is then converted into a unique code stored in a database.

Experts who have followed iris recognition technology said it has the potential to be more accurate and convenient than fingerprinting. The debate over its use, they said, will depend largely on how police decide to store, share and protect data, and whether they use iris scanning more broadly than fingerprinting, which is usually done after someone is arrested.

Another issue, they said, will be the pace of the advancement of iris-scanning technology. Experts predict that within a few years, iris-scanner companies will produce devices capable of scanning eyes from several yards away, even without a person's knowledge. If that happens, there are sure to be arguments about when and how police will be allowed to do so.

Police and biometrics experts said they didn't know of any laws that govern the use of iris scanners.

Stuart Hanlon, a San Francisco defense attorney, said he was concerned about the potential for iris scanners to intrude on people's privacy. "I don't know why police would start this without some legislation to back it up," he said.

The use of iris scanners has taken off in recent years. It is used in some jails as a way to double-check that the right inmate is being released; in a prescreening program that allows low-risk airline passengers to avoid security delays, including at San Francisco International Airport; and by the United Nations, which has used it to register people it helps during relief missions.

But most people's introduction to the technology came though "Minority Report," a film set in the year 2054. Citizens' irises are scanned constantly in daily life, allowing advertisers to tailor their pitches to them. Tom Cruise's character undergoes a gruesome eye transplant to evade discovery.

Proponents of the technology said it doesn't have to be scary and could protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens by cutting down on identity theft, allowing people to prove who they are through iris scans and requiring them to surrender less personal information to companies.

Like fingerprinting, vein recognition and facial recognition, iris scanning is a form of biometrics. One of the strengths of the iris is that it changes little over the course of a lifetime, said Professor Anil Jain, an expert in biometrics at Michigan State University.

Proponents say it never delivers a false hit if used properly. But if it is used more broadly than fingerprints, it will raise concerns about "function creep," Jain said - the idea that information about people and their habits will be improperly shared.

Alameda County's scanner, which retails for $9,995, was donated by BI{+2} Technologies of Plymouth, Mass., which gave cameras to six agencies around the country and is banking on a further expansion of the technology. The firm's scanners have also captured the eyes of children so that they can be identified if they are abducted.

Robert Melley, the company's chief operating officer, said he saw a bright future for the scanners and predicted that police would be able to use them in situations where they cannot use fingerprints.

"The way the technology is evolving, there will be a hand-held camera in six months," Melley said. In the future, he said, "an officer will be able to have a hand-held iris recognition scanner on his or her belt, and as part of a routine traffic stop could simply ask the driver and/or passengers to look into the camera."

"I'm skeptical of it," said Cristina Arguedas, a defense attorney in Berkeley. "That sounds like an absolute invasion of privacy to me, certainly to the passengers and to anyone who didn't do anything wrong."

"The way the technology is evolving, there will be a hand-held camera in six months," said Robert Melley, BI{+2} Technologies chief operating officer

Copyright 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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