FBI officials have scanned the irises of nearly 460,000 people in a pilot program that may soon replace fingerprints. While iris-scanning technology has been around for more than 25 years, it’s just now getting to where it’s fast, easy and relatively bug-free. “It’s a powerful biometric,” said Patrick Grother, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., who has been developing algorithms and software for iris scanning. “It’s fast to process, it has discriminative power — my iris doesn’t look like your iris, and it has reasonable permanence.”
Iris scanning cameras can be hand-held or attached to a wall. They are effective from three to six feet away from the subject’s eyes. Soldiers in Iraq have been using them to authenticate Iraqi civilians who are authorized to work inside U.S. military facilities.
The iris is a part of the eye outside of the pupil that is made of collagen in a three-dimensional arrangement. This pattern can be imaged with light at certain wavelengths. “It’s like taking picture of sand dunes from space,” he said. “It’s a 3-D object.” People with brown eyes have more pigment than those with blue eyes, said Grother. That makes it tougher to capture iris information from photographs of brown-eyed folks. Of course, anyone who blinks, squints or scrunches up their eyes will make it difficult for law enforcement to get a good scan. Grother and other experts now are developing software to recognize iris patterns from several different camera angles, making it easier to use a hand-held device or smartphone.