Sheriffs Using Iris Recognition Technology along US-Mexico Border

by Vins
Published: Updated:

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

IRIS software photographs and captures the details of an individual’s eyes, collecting around 240 characteristics within seconds, then examines a database of nearly a million profiles for an identity. When compared to the roughly 40-60 characteristics found in finger prints, BI2’s system is far more precise. The new system will also fight against common problems such as fingerprint defacement and false personal information given to officers. SBSC hopes that both the stationary and mobile versions of the scanners will create a “digital wall” against criminals. BI2 plans on having their creation expand to law enforcement throughout the country. This is supported by market analysis from Tractica, which predicts an annual growth rate of 22% in biometric revenues, accounting for an estimated $69.8 billion 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.” 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, like 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, currently, ICE has “direct access” to many law enforcement databases.

As of January 2018, nine months after the SBSC vote, the BI2 and SBSC websites still do not acknowledge the existence of the partnership. There has not been any establishment news coverage of the new border technology, with corporate media concentrating their reporting about border security on President Trump’s proposed wall. A few local and independent news sources have reported on this story, including the San Antonio Express-News, Business Wire, and Muckrock.

Source: George Joseph, “The Biometric Frontier,” The Intercept, July 08, 2017,

Student Researcher: Jessica Paneral (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)