25 Sheriffs Using Iris Recognition Technology along US–Mexico Border

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

In April 2017, the Southwestern Border Sheriffs’ Coalition (SBSC) unanimously approved use of new biometric identification technology as a defense against “violent unauthorized immigrants,” George Joseph of the Intercept reported. All 31 US counties along the 1,989 miles of the US border with Mexico will receive a free three-year trial of the Inmate Recognition Identification System (IRIS), created by the company Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies, or BI2, according to Joseph’s Intercept article.

IRIS software photographs and captures the details of an individual’s eyes, collecting around 240 characteristic elements within seconds, then examines a database of nearly one million profiles for an identity match. When compared with the roughly 40 to 60 characteristic elements found in fingerprints, BI2’s system is far more precise. SBSC hopes that both the stationary and mobile versions of the scanners will create a “digital wall” against criminals. BI2 plans on expanding the use of their system to law enforcement throughout the country. Analysis by the marketing research firm Tractica predicts an annual growth rate of 22.9 percent in biometric technology revenues, accounting for an estimated $69.8 billion in revenues over a ten-year period.

As hopeful as SBSC is about the crime fighting potential of IRIS, critics of this system suggest that it will encourage racial profiling against immigrants and may be used to determine legal status. According to Nathan Wessler, staff attorney with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, “Racial profiling is a serious concern [. . .] especially Latinos or people of color are at greater risk for iris checks simply for the color of their skin.” Wessler told the Intercept, “In this country, we’ve long resisted being a ‘show me your papers’ society, but this moves us to that because you increasingly can’t avoid your identity being scooped up in public.”

Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s civil liberties team, raised concerns about local law enforcement sharing information with federal immigration agencies such as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Schwartz told the Intercept, “Whatever legitimate interest police have in capturing biometrics to do ordinary law enforcement jobs, it is not proper to share that information with ICE.” As Joseph’s Intercept report noted, ICE currently has “direct access” to many law enforcement databases.

There has not been any establishment news coverage of the new border technology, with corporate media instead concentrating their reporting about border security on President Trump’s proposed wall. A few local, specialized, and independent news sources have reported on this story, including the San Antonio Express-News, Business Wire, and MuckRock.

George Joseph, “The Biometric Frontier,” The Intercept, July 8, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/07/08/border-sheriffs-iris-surveillance-biometrics/.

Student Researcher: Jessica Paneral (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)