A U.S. Airman scans eyeprints in Afghanistan. Photo: Air Force

The Feds Want to ‘Fingerprint’ Your Eyeballs

New biometric tech means more of your unique traits are going to end up in a gov’t database

The Department of Homeland Security wants handheld biometric scanners that can recognize your iris, face and fingerprints. Why? Because these traits are dead giveaways if police are trying to ID you.

On one hand, the new tech could make law enforcement swifter and more effective. On the other hand, the feds and local cops could wind up gathering lots of information on everyday people that really should remain private.

DHS has big ambitions for biometrics tech. According to a recent request for information from the agency’s science and technology directorate, Homeland Security is jonesing for portable machines with “iris and/or latent fingerprint image sensor capabilities.”

The new gadgets would allow the agency to “capture biometric and biographic information from unknown persons” and “achieve identification of known persons of interest while in the field.” DHS also wants the scanners to take people’s mugshots.

The scanners must be able to communicate data in 3G over a virtual private network. Homeland Security also wants some of the scanners to be based on iOS smartphones and others on Windows tablets.

Iris scanners are fairly new — and are just now beginning to appear at airports. Border Patrol conducted field trials (.pdf) of iris recognition devices in McAllen, Texas, in 2010. The military has also been getting into the this line of work, deploying scanners in Afghanistan to collect the unique eyeprints of millions of Afghans.

But biometrics in general are not new to police work. Homeland Security and its sub-agencies — Customs and Border Protection, for one — already collect the fingerprints of millions of foreign visitors.

These prints are stored in a DHS database called US-VISIT IDENT, which is being consolidated with the FBI’s fingerprint records into a single national trove expected to be completed next year. When it goes online, “police across the country will theoretically be able to instantly check a suspect against that vast and growing array of data,” according to The Week.

Not coincidentally, DHS is also looking to upgrade its multi-billion dollar tactical communications grid of radios, control stations and operations facilities. A modernization program announced in 2012 includes broadband services for “biometric checks, database queries, image and file transfer, location based services and streaming video,” according to the announcement.

Most regular police don’t currently have the tools to scan irises or fingerprints on the spot. And civil libertarians might consider that a good thing. But if DHS gets handheld biometric scanners, many of the new devices could eventually wind up in the hands of local agencies, multiplying the potential for abuse.

Whose unique traits can be recorded and under what circumstances? How long will biometric records be stored? What if the data isn’t secure? What could the government legally do with the information today or years from now?

As the feds and local cops get new identification techs, these questions remain unanswered. “That has enormous implications,” said Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union, “not just for security but also for American society.”