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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Eying up the future: iris scans spread to Iraq and New Jersey schools

A recent Washington Post/MSNBC article about US forces joining up with Sunni insurgents to attack Al-Qaeda contained this interesting little nugget towards the end:
Kuehl said later that he would probably supply weapons to the militiamen, but in limited amounts. The fighters have given the Americans identification, including fingerprints, addresses and retinal scans, so the soldiers believe they could track down anyone who betrayed them. "What I don't want them to do is wither on the vine," Kuehl said.
Alliances with the occupier - even alliances of convenience - aren't what they used to be in Iraq.


News of US forces using retinal scans and other forms of biometric tracking and identification aren't new. After the US forces destroyed that city, officials began requiring returning residents of Fallujah to obtain biometric ID cards and to submit to retinal scans before re-entering the city. But the security procedure has spread. Iraqi troops, forced to abandon their reliable AK-47's for American-made and much more complicated M4's, will have to submit to retinal scans as a condition of receiving the new weapons. This information, of course, can be used to track the weapon, with the intent of keeping it out of the hands of insurgents (Iraqi police and soldiers routinely either sell their weapons or work both sides of the fight). Likewise, officials hope that the massive databases they are compiling can be used to screen out potential sympathizers with the insurgency.

The scanning device of preference seems to be the PIER™ 2.3 – Portable Iris Enrollment and Recognition Device, produced by Securimetrics Incorporated. According to the spec sheet, the scanner
"is a rugged hand-held device that allows the operator to enroll and identify individuals using the highly unique patterns and textures of the human iris. The PIER™ can store a database of up to 200,000 individuals (both left and right eye) and quickly return the identity of the subject. Tethered to a PC, the device can match an unknown individual against a database of millions with extremely high accuracy."
The company's website claims that PIER has been approved and deployed by a variety of government agencies, including The Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC), seeing action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia ("the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) registered the irises of 1.8 million Afghans in 2002").

With the increasing overlap of domestic policing and foreign war-fighting (Blackwater deployed in New Orleans, NY and LAPD training Iraqi police), we can almost expect such technology deployed here at home, almost certainly against marginalized or vulnerable populations.

And so, knowing that, it should come as no surprise that the technology has already spread into public schools, thanks to government subsidies (in this case a $369,000 grant from the Department of Justice). According to an ABC News article,
Parents who want to pick up their kids at school in one New Jersey district now can submit to iris scans, as the technology that helps keep our nation's airports and hotels safe begins to make its way further into American lives.

The Freehold Borough School District launched this high-tech, high-wattage security system on Monday with funding from the Department of Justice as part of a study on the system's effectiveness.

As many as four adults can be designated to pick up each child in the district, but in order to be authorized to come into school, they will be asked to register with the district's iris recognition security and visitor management system. At this point, the New Jersey program is not mandatory.

When picking up a child, the adult provides a driver's license and then submits to an eye scan. If the iris image camera recognizes his or her eyes, the door clicks open. If someone tries to slip in behind an authorized person, the system triggers a siren and red flashing lights in the front office. The entire process takes just seconds.
The superintendent of the district clearly supports the program (on a side note, check out the way that the technology breaks down normal human relationships, such as holding a door for someone or the traditional method of protecting kids from stranger dangers in which their teacher knows their parents):
Phil Meara, Freehold's superintendent, said that although it was expensive, the program would help schools across the country move into a new frontier in child protection.

"This is all part of a larger emphasis, here in New Jersey, on school safety," he said. "We chose this school because we were looking for a typical slightly urban school to launch the system."

Meara applied for a $369,000 grant on behalf of the school district and had the eye scanners installed in two grammar schools and one middle school. So far, 300 of the nearly 1,500 individuals available to pick up a student from school have registered for the eye scan system.

"The price tag was high really due to the research and program development," Meara said. "We're all aware that at that price, this system couldn't be duplicated at other schools. But most of the money paid for the development. So my prediction is that in the future, the price of this system will be much lower."

Meara said they were trying to deny entry to anyone who wasn't permitted in the building and ensure that when an adult came to take a child out of school, he or she was who they said they were. Meara was also involved with a pilot program that took place in 2003, in Plumstead Township in New Egypt, N.J.

The superintendent found that teachers and parents often held the door open for others as they entered the school, which allowed strangers to slip right in behind.

This new eye scan system, however, catches strangers. Once the iris scanner permits an individual to enter the school, it monitors how many people pass through the door.

"Biometrics is the wave of the future," Meara said. "Everything I've heard is that there will be a tremendous emphasis on making schools as safe as possible. If our school process [shows] that this system works, yes, it might just take off."
And that's not the only school. In Britain the technology has been trotted out to track kids in the lunch line and checking out library books. With the current state of fear permeating American families and schools (remember the Al-Qaeda school bus scare?), and the concomitant desire to make schools as "safe as possible", there is little doubt that, as Meara suggests, the technology "might just take off."

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