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Biometrics: Mobile Iris Recognition

The use of mobile biometric devices in law enforcement applications allows rapid identification of individuals during field operations, and provides enhanced officer safety. While fingerprint technology remains the primary methodology used, facial and iris recognition are quickly gaining ground.

In fact, the FBI is currently expanding its biometric database to include iris scan collection and plans to conduct an iris pilot by 2014. Considered the most accurate of the biometrics modalities, iris recognition determines the identity of an individual by capturing a high-resolution digital photograph of the iris and then comparing that image against a database for identification.

Iris Recognition as an Emerging Technology

Many industry experts believe that the use of iris recognition will continue to expand, due primarily to its enhanced accuracy and the unique attributes of the human iris. The pattern of the human iris is formed in infancy and remains unchanged throughout one’s lifetime, making the probability of two irises producing the same code nearly impossible. It is a non-intrusive, non-contact method of biometric identification that provides quicker response times and greater accuracy. Because iris recognition technology has historically exhibited an exceptionally low false positive rate, it is ideally suited for conclusive one-to-many matching and one-to-one authentication.

Iris recognition systems analyze the features in the colored tissue surrounding the pupil, which has more than 200 points that can be used for comparison, including rings, furrows and freckles. After the digital photo of the iris pattern is taken, an encrypted digital template is re-created using complex image processing algorithms, and the iris pattern is then compared against images stored in a database. According to a recent report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), iris recognition technology had a 90 to 99 percent accuracy rate when used to identify an individual from a crowd.

In 2009, NIST initiated the Iris Exchange program (IREX) in support of an expanded marketplace of iris-based applications based on standardized interoperable iris imagery. Since that time, the program has addressed a number of issues, such as the effects of compression on accuracy, the effectiveness of image quality assessment algorithms, and the evaluation of one-to-many iris algorithms.

Mobile Iris for Law Enforcement

A recognized leader in the development and implementation of multimodal biometric identity management solutions, BI2 Technologies, Inc. offers an iris recognition system designed for use in correctional facilities. The Inmate Identification and Recognition System (IRIS™) positively identifies inmates and visitors using the most mathematically unique biometric – the iris. The company used existing iris recognition algorithms and camera technologies to build IRIS, which has been sold to more than 320 law-enforcement agencies in 47 states.

Sheriff's Offices and correctional facilities utilize IRIS technology for essential responsibilities, such as arrest, intake and booking, and visitation. With IRIS, the identity and criminal history of an inmate can be quickly verified by scanning the iris when admitted and later discharged from the correctional facility. The devices are designed to increase security and prevent the wrong prisoner from being released. In fact, when an inmate escaped in 2011 from a correctional facility in Cranston, RI using the mangled photo identification of an inmate who was eligible for parole, the Department of Corrections acted on its plan to implement the IRIS solution.

MorphoTrak, a high-technology company in the Safran group, is a market leader in identification and detection solutions deployed in over 100 countries. MorphoEyes is their latest dual iris capture solution for civil identity management and law enforcement markets.  It supports capture, enrollment, fusion-based search and match, and verification with concurrent auto-capture of both irises.

Lightweight, rugged, and user-friendly, MorphoEyes can be quickly deployed and integrated into existing systems. "Adding MorphoEyes to an existing LiveScan system is an easy upgrade allowing law enforcement to begin capture of IRIS images compatible with the FBI NGI Iris database,” said Robert Horton, Senior Director of Marketing & Communications for MorphoTrak.

MorphoEyes enables the tracking of criminal suspects, and also acts as a complement to other police identification methods, such as fingerprints and mug shots. It has the ability to operate in both bright and dark conditions, and features an USB 2.0 interface with no external power source required. With its patented see-through design for iris location, MorphoEyes is easy to use and does not come into contact with the subject’s forehead. Other features include white light presence to minimize pupil size, extremely fast acquisition, and robust IP54 iris analysis software.

Founded in 1996, Cross Match Technologies, Inc. provides biometric identity management solutions for government and law enforcement agencies, as well as private enterprise. The CrossMatch SEEK II (Secure Electronic Enrollment Kit) is a multi-modal identification platform that combines forensic-quality fingerprint capture, facial recognition capture technology, and rapid dual iris scan capability. Built-in wireless networking capability allows officers in the field to access remote databases, such as ABIS, for thorough identification checks. SEEK II offers iris matching speed in excess of 500,000 matches per second, is fully operational in bright sunlight, and features 1.3 megapixel IR sensors.

NIST Standards for Iris Biometrics

Developing standards is crucial for building effective biometric systems that provide guidance for systems testing and ensure accurate performance system comparisons. They also encourage open exchange and interoperability of biometric data between agencies and disparate systems. Since 2012, lawmakers and federal agencies have been demanding that NIST deliver on its promise to finalize a standard for iris images in federal identity cards. During a recent hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations, committee chair Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said that NIST’s inability to follow through severely compromises national security.

On July 12, 2013, NIST released the latest update of Federal Information Processing Standards Publications Series (FIPS-201) by issuing its official Biometric Data Specifications for Personal Identity Verification (PIV). Government-issued PIV smart cards provide federal employees and contractors access to government buildings and computer resources.

The iris recognition recommendation explains how to load compact iris images on the PIV card for more efficient reading, provides performance specifications for iris biometrics to assure high accuracy, as well as specifications for iris cameras to guide implementers on camera selection. According to NIST, the standards-based elements support interoperability within and across agencies using iris recognition technology.

Iris Scanning and Privacy Issues

The increased use of iris recognition technology in law enforcement has some civil liberties advocates concerned that it may be used to violate the privacy of law-abiding citizens. While the Supreme Court has ruled that there must be “reasonable suspicion” to fingerprint an individual, no such ruling as yet exists for face or iris recognition technology. Agencies nationwide have begun building an iris database by scanning every suspect that goes through booking, as well as prison inmates.

The New York City Police Department implemented such a program in 2010 throughout all five boroughs to prevent suspects from disguising their identities. When the New York Civil Liberties Union raised concerns, the NYPD assured them that the images of the irises would be destroyed once a case is either dismissed or sealed.

While BI2 Technologies commends and supports the vigilance of privacy advocates in protecting the constitutional rights afforded to all U.S. citizens, Mullin points to certain factors inherent in iris technology that actually uphold those rights. According to Mullin, the I.R.I.S. database maintained by BI2 Technologies only contains biometric and related criminal justice information on offenders, not private citizens.

In addition, their iris biometric technology is simply a high-resolution, specialized digital photograph of an offender’s iris that can only be taken by authorized law enforcement after a person is booked. And because individuals do not leave a copy of their irises at a crime scene (unlike fingerprint and DNA), iris biometric data cannot be used against them as forensic evidence linking them to a location, weapon, or crime victim.

Mullin also points out that the constitutional laws that were written over 200 years ago do not change simply because better technology has been developed. “The laws and judicial decisions have long since decided the issues related to when photographs of a person may be taken and how they may be used.” Finally, their I.R.I.S. technology can only be used with the knowledge and cooperation of the offender, who has to intentionally look at the I.R.I.S. camera, eliminating any covert use of the system.

Horton stated that from a judicial viewpoint, persons out in public areas can have no reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to their photo being taken.  However, the close proximity of an iris scanning device to the subject’s eyes requires the cooperation of said subject. “Capture of NIST compliant iris images requires a flash of infra-red light coincident with the camera shutter action. While there are some "iris at a distance" capture mechanisms which can capture a NIST-compatible iris image from a distance of several feet away (used in border control eGates for example), most iris capture is done with a specialized iris camera at less than 12" inches from the face,” said Horton.

According to Hinman, the misuse of iris biometric technology is no different than that of fingerprinting with regards to reasonable suspicion in detaining an individual. “An officer makes a determination of probable cause to print... I would expect the same if an officer was to capture iris images.  It's not the same as monitoring a CCTV camera running facial matching... iris isn't captured that way today.”

However, these concerns will only have relevance when the use of iris technology in law enforcement is more widespread. Mike Oehler, Mobile Product Manager for Cross Match, said that this is likely to change over time, but only when accommodations are made within the AFIS/ABIS databases and submission file formats to accept iris data. 

Grant Opportunities

A number of criminal justice and law enforcement organizations provide funding for the implementation of advanced technological systems for more effective policing. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the National Sheriff’s Association are just a few that offer grant opportunities at the national level. Police agencies can also take advantage of the many local, state, and county foundations that provide funding for technology enhancements and officer training.

In 2009, a grant from the U.S. Justice Department was used by the National Sheriff’s Association to purchase multiple iris scan devices from BI2 Technologies. Approximately forty-five agencies nationwide received the scanners for the identification and tracking of inmates.  In addition to giving local law enforcement iris-scanning capabilities, BI2 Technologies maintains the only national, web-based iris biometric network shared by participating agencies.

BI2 has also worked with the National Sheriff’s Association to implement a COPS grant that brings iris technology to hundreds of law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. The creation of a national data sharing repository allows rapid and accurate exchange of data to positively identify individuals already in custody.

Earlier this year, a Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) allowed the Chandler, AZ Police Department to purchase 36 mobile fingerprint scanners from MorphoTrak. The JAG Program, administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, is the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions that support a broad range of program areas. Use of the handheld devices will allow officers to identify or verify an individual’s fingerprint and receive a response within thirty seconds. “Police departments find that the devices save them money by not having to transport people to the station and that they act as a force multiplier by keeping officers on the street,” said Horton.

In 2011, a grant from the Palm Beach Gardens, FL Police Foundation was used to purchase Cross Match Mobil Rapid ID systems for the Police Department’s patrol division. While the City budget funds the majority of police operations, the Foundation, an independent non-profit organization, provides additional funding for innovative programs that would otherwise not be implemented. According to Police Chief Stephen J. Stepp, officers in the field now have instant access to critical information, which allows them to provide a higher level of service to the community.

Susan Geoghegan is a freelance writer living in Naples, Fla. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2013

Rating : 1.3

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