The Iris Program (IP) is part of the agency's Next Generation Identification (NGI) initiative — a push to develop more sophisticated identification systems to run parallel to existing and other burgeoning technologies (like fingerprints and facial ...
Last week, The Verge published a report based on a trove of documents obtained from various Califonia law enforcement agencies that revealed an ongoing FBI program responsible for collecting upward of 434,000 iris scans from arrestees (drawn from California, Texas, and Missouri) since launching in 2013. The Iris Program (IP) is part of the agencyâ€™s Next Generation Identification (NGI) initiative â€” a push to develop more sophisticated identification systems to run parallel to existing and other burgeoning technologies (like fingerprints and facial recognition, respectively). According to the programâ€™s outline, the aim of the IP is to â€œcreate a national iris repository that will increase the usability of iris biometrics,â€ which can then be shared between US Border Patrol, the Pentagon, and a number of other law enforcement agencies.
You may feel a little creeped out reading this, but you shouldnâ€™t feel alone. The report also references a May complaint from a coalition of privacy advocates concerned about the integrity of the program and railing against an FBI proposal that would exempt the NGI from accountability for any violations of the Privacy Act (enacted in 1974 to ensure individuals the right to know what records the government keeps on their activities).Nor should you feel particularly surprised. If youâ€™ve had your eyes open the past few years, youâ€™ve seen iris scanning technology popping up all over the place. Last year, both the Lumia Nokia and Fujitsu flaunted phones equipped with infrared cameras that use iris scans to unlock, no swipes or passcodes required. The UNâ€™s World Food Programme just recently installed iris scanners within its camps as a biometric payment method for Syrian refugees who fled home sans cash or plastic. Theyâ€™re also required for anyone applying for a NEXUS card to expediate border crossings between the United States and Canada.
And the technology is improving rapidly. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have been working on long-range iris recognition systems that can scan and identify eyes from up to 40 feet away â€”Â even when captured through, say, the rear-view mirror of a car, or the entrance of a McDonaldâ€™s. You can see where Iâ€™m going with this.â€œItâ€™s pretty awesome,â€ research professor Marios Savvides assures us at the end of the demo video. At least, I think it was him saying it. I was already hiding under the bed by that point.
Parallel to this trend is the rise of eye-tracking technology. Eye-tracking firm Tobii has developed custom glasses designed to record usersâ€™ eye movements and generate insights on viewing behaviorÂ (invaluable data for marketers, designers, and engineers), as well as EyeX, an eye-tracking system for home computers that uses eye movements to control a wide range of functions. Companies like Eyefluence are building eye-tracking technology into head-mounted displays for VR and AR (augmented reality) platforms. Itâ€™s also being employed across medical fields to detect diseases and disorders, from the onset of Alzheimerâ€™s, to concussions and autism. All of this is great news if you love big technological shifts, never saw â€œMinority Report,â€ or happen to own an aspirin conglomerate. But it may take a while before the rest of us (read: me) see eye-to-lens with this technology.Itâ€™s not the perceived invasion that gives me pause â€” after all, Iâ€™ve already surrendered whole provinces of my privacy just by sigining into social media, search engines, and location-based services. Itâ€™s the imperceived invasion. As consumers, our first brushes with biometrics have still been brushes. Unlocking a door with your fingerprint, or your iPhone with your thumb both require some sort of physical exchange â€” a gesture, a touch, affirmative contact. In a technical sense, those counts as intimate physical relationships. Unwittingly making eye contact with some beam somewhere just feels different, probably because it doesnâ€™t feel like anything. Our eyes, after all, are sensitive subjects â€” open windows into our humanity,Â expressing what our words canâ€™t (and often betraying what they wonâ€™t). Itâ€™s kind of sad to think of them put in service of drab facts, when their true talents are suggestion and mystery. When Anne Sexton described her dear friendâ€™s eyes as â€œfull of language,â€ surely she meant something deeper than data. And while, yes, thereâ€™s a strange new insecurity that comes with knowing that even your glances can now be stolen, my discomfort with all of this is only partially paranoia â€”Â itâ€™s mostly melancholy. A look across a crowded bar was once a human way of casting out for connection; soon enough itâ€™ll be a way to cue up an ad for HÃ¤agen-Dazs in the cab home. Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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