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Are U.S. Cops Preparing Widespread Use of Facial Recognition iPhone?


"If you are out in public, I can take a picture of anybody."

Starting as early as September, cops across the country  may be using a new iphone-based device to identify people based on a picture of their face,  iris scan, or a fingerprint reader, raising concerns about how the data will be gathered, stored, and used.

The device in question is called the MORIS,  which stands for Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System. Made by BI2 Technologies of Plymouth, Mass, it runs on the iphone platform. The company states that it has contracts with 40 government agencies to deliver 1,000 devices this fall.

Unlike other currently used biometric technologies, the MORIS does not require a separate digital camera or upload time, and automatically scans known databases for criminal warrants and other relevant history. The Wall Street Journal gives specifics on how this new device works:

"To scan a person’s iris, police officers can hold the special iris-scanning camera on device, called MORIS, about 5 to 6 inches away from an individual’s irises. After snapping a high resolution photo, the MORIS system analyzes 235 unique features in each iris and uses an algorithm to match that person with their identity if they are in the database."

"For the facial recognition, an officer takes a photo of a person at a distance of about 2 feet to 5 feet. Based on technologies from Animetrics Inc., the system analyzes about 130 distinguishing points on the face, such as the distance between a person’s eye and nose. It then scans the database for likely matches."

As for the usage of the devices, the law does not appear settled on whether police need consent to take a person's photo.  Generally speaking, the law does not prohibit taking photos of people in a public place. But taking and storing photos for law enforcement purposes- particularly if the subject is in custody- could trigger a different standard of rules. The law becomes even more vague on issues such as whether an iris scan constitutes a search.

Below is a video presentation for the Brockton Police Department showing facial recognition and iris scanning technologies that have been demoed and will soon be in use by various law enforcement units in Massachusetts. The presenters show the devices, discuss the database, and describe the features designed to help law enforcement officers.

US Troops overseas have used a variety of biometric tools for years to vet allies and identify insurgents and terrorists. But the MORIS is poised to become the first widespread, mobile usage of such technology here in the US by local and federal law enforcement.

Law enforcement analysts believe the device could prevent the wrong inmates from obtaining prison release, to identify accident victims and keep track of the homeless. While there are many privacy and civil liberties concerns associated with law enforcement's widespread use of facial recognition devices, the landscape of biometrics is already rapidly changing with programs such as Facebook Facial Recognition:

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