From [Intercept] SINCE HIS INAUGURATION, President Donald Trump has found little funding for his “big, beautiful wall.” In the meantime, however, another acquisition promised to deter unauthorized immigrants is coming to the border: iris recognition devices. Thirty-one sheriffs, representing every county along the U.S.-Mexico border, voted unanimously on April 3 to adopt tools that will capture, catalogue, and compare individuals’ iris data, for use both in jails and out on patrol. Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies, the company behind the push, has offered the sheriffs a free three-year trial, citing law enforcement’s difficulties in identifying unauthorized immigrants whose fingerprints can be disfigured through manual labor or self-inflicted wounds.
Iris recognition is just the latest surveillance technology helping fortify what the White House hopes will make up a “digital wall,” a concept that many border sheriffs view as less intrusive than Trump’s envisioned 30-foot barricade stretching from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California. For law enforcement, the tool promises to help identify people without reliable fingerprints and to deter repeat border crossers. And for Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies, which frequently goes by BI2, rapid border expansion means its existing national iris database will receive a huge influx of biometric information on unauthorized immigrants, boosting its product’s capabilities to potential law enforcement clients across the country.
While this high-tech approach to immigration enforcement has not generated anything close to the controversy of Trump’s proposed wall, the campaign to expand iris scan collection on the border is of a piece with the president’s denunciations of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.
According to John Leonard, senior vice president of BI2, the company’s decision to give away this technology was, in part, motivated by law enforcement’s alleged struggles with violent unauthorized immigrants. “The frustration law enforcement has is this: ‘Alright, I got this criminal, the guy raped three kids. He’s back in my community again. I don’t even know who he is, and the federal government has never given me what I need,'” Leonard said during a video call with The Intercept.
“You get all these people that say, ‘Well Trump is going after all these illegals, these immigrants, who have made America great.’ Well there’s a lot of immigrants that have made it great, but there’s a lot of assholes, too,” he said. “So BI2 is stepping up to the plate and donating this.”
IN THE COMING months, BI2’s iris recognition devices will be installed in every sheriff’s department along the U.S.-Mexico border. Each department will receive both a stationary iris capture device for inmate intake facilities and, eventually, a mobile version, according to Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez of Val Verde County, Texas, who currently serves as the president of the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition.
The technology works by taking a high-resolution image of a person’s iris with a special infrared illumination camera, and then creating an individualized iris template based on that image. The templates exploit nearly 240 unique characteristic elements in the iris, compared to the 40 to 60 used for fingerprints, resulting in far fewer false matches. To make an identification, BI2’s iris recognition program compares an individual’s iris against the over 987,000 iris scans held in its private database, which collects images from over 180 law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide.
In May, I traveled to Wayne County, North Carolina, to observe the sheriff’s department’s new BI2 iris unit in action. Sgt. Delbert Edwards, an older man in gray, stood at his computer terminal, instructing me to step about eight inches away from a small black lens mounted on a counter. Three red lights flashed in my left eye, then a blue one. Edwards beckoned me to tilt my head back, and suddenly, a green dot popped onto the screen. The camera reflexively tilted upward, having taken what it needed from me. “Right, there you go, perfect,” Edwards said, glancing at a window on his screen where black and white images of my disembodied eyes stared back at him.
Edwards then watched as a green bar zipped back and forth under the iris image, checking against an inmate he picked at random and against hundreds of thousands of other irises captured from inmates across the country. After 20 seconds a message appeared: “Individual was not verified, and the irises didn’t match anybody else.” Behind the message was an image of the county inmate Edwards tested my iris against. On the screen, I could see a woman with brown hair, an orange jumpsuit, and a blank stare. [MORE]