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iPhone Iris Scans Highlight Privacy Concerns

July 21, 2011

Police departments nationwide, in an attempt to quickly and more precisely identify a person or track criminal suspects in the field, are gearing up to use a controversial iris- and facial-scanning device, Reuters is reporting.

This “biometric” technology, which would seem to be found only on TV crime dramas, could improve speed and accuracy in some routine police work in the field. Its use, however, has alarmed some who are concerned about possible civil liberties and privacy issues.

The smartphone-based scanner, named Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System, or MORIS, is made by BI2 Technologies in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and can be deployed by officers on the street or at the station by sliding a viewfinder over a smartphone camera and snapping a photo.

The devices cost $3,000 each and weigh 12.5 ounces once added to the iPhone, the Wall Street Journal said. In Brockton, the devices were funded by a Department of Justice and National Sheriff’s Association grant to the Massachusetts Sheriff’s Association.

Responding to concerns over privacy and law enforcement tracking of innocent citizens, one police officer told the Daily Mail, “We are not going to just randomly stop people.  It will be used when someone has done something. All probable cause protections remain in place. People don’t need to worry about being scooped up.”

Sean Mullin, CEO of BI2, explains that facial recognition photos, “will only be taken with your knowledge, probable cause, and, often, with your consent.” He said the utilization of MORIS technology often “requires a level of cooperation that makes it very overt – a person knows that you’re taking a picture for this purpose.”

Deputies are using the tech to identify people without ID, accident victims, or the homeless. Legally, they can do so without permission, but in Pinellas County, Fla., at least, it’s department policy to ask for consent, county systems analyst Scott McCallum told the Wall Street Journal.

Constitutional rights advocates are concerned, in part because the device is accurate from up to four feet away, potentially recording a person’s identity without them being aware of it. Experts also say that before police administer an iris scan, they should have probable cause a crime has been committed.

“What we don’t want is for them to become a general surveillance tool, where the police start using them routinely on the general public, collecting biometric information on innocent people,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the national ACLU in Washington, D.C., told Reuters.

Facial recognition technology is not foolproof. For example, some US individuals mistakenly have had their driver’s license revoked as a potential fraud. The problem, it turns out, is that they look like another driver and so the technology mistakenly flags them as having fake identification.

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