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Feds expand use of iris recognition technology

The Homeland Security Department (DHS) is expanding its biometrics source from fingerprint to iris and facial recognition for identity verification. In fact, DHS has started collecting iris and facial images on suspected illegal immigrants or immigrants arrested at border patrol stations.

In an interview with NextGov, Kimberly Weissman, spokeswoman for the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) office said: “The department is exploring additional biometric modalities such as face and iris to determine what may be possible to implement in our operational environments, whether it be for enforcement or Trusted Traveler programs.”

According to a document obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the DHS plans on testing iris and facial matching at five airports under its Trusted Traveler program for U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents: Global Entry.

According to Weissman: “While US-VISIT is testing new tools, technologies and approaches to integrate US-VISIT’s biometric and biographic applications into a comprehensive set of automated services, the goal remains the same: to ensure that U.S. government decision-makers have access to the information they need to determine someone’s identity, when they need it.”

U.S. Custom and Border Protection spokeswoman Stephanie Malin noted that another pilot is planned for the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, which will test the feasibility and accuracy of iris capture and matching in an operational environment. The test also includes storing a facial recognition-quality photograph.

On top of that, the Obama administration has approved procedures for embedding iris images into federal employees ID cards. This provides an option for personnel for whom fingerprinting is problematic, such as those missing limbs.

However the use of iris technology is quite limited unless there is a national database of iris images. At the moment, it serves to merely confirm identity rather than searching for suspect’s name and criminal history.

Former US-VISIT Director Jim Williams said that: “DHS needs a champion of identity management to really bring it together to better meet their mission and to understand its application in all its missions, such as cybersecurity, trusted travelers, borders and immigration, and even first responders.”

The DHS is currently upgrading its database as part of the modifications made in order “to improve functionality, availability, flexibility, scalability and affordability.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has allotted a $1 billion multi-year upgrade on its database or repository in order to accommodate iris and facial images.

Immigrant advocates and rights groups have raised concerns on the sensitivity of creating national databases and data sharing of iris images. Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) associate litigation counsel Amie Stepanovich noted that if the DHS data warehouse were ever breached, the Department of Homeland Security couldn’t simply issue a replacement eye to enrolled individuals.

Weissman maintains however that the department has “data sharing agreements between our domestic agencies that take into account the privacy laws and data protection strategies vital to appropriate information sharing.”

Should we be concerned by U.S. government’s expanded efforts to use biometrics?

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