Why Are Border Sheriffs Rushing to Adopt Iris-Recognition Technology?

President Trump’s border wall proposal is on the ropes, but that has not discouraged border sheriffs from pitching their own misguided scheme. According to a media report, sheriffs along the U.S.-Mexico border are quietly planning to acquire iris-recognition technology with help from a private surveillance company. Pitched in part as a tool to “secure our border,” the use of iris-recognition technology could disproportionately affect those already targeted by the Trump Administration’s policies. This is not only a “biometric wall” – the deployment of iris-scanning equipment would also feed a nationwide database that raises privacy and security concerns.

New surveillance proposals should be subject to public debate. With that goal in mind, ACLU affiliates in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have sent public records requests to every sheriff along the U.S.-Mexico border demanding records of their plans to acquire and use iris-recognition technology.

According to reports, all 31 sheriffs along U.S.-Mexico border voted to adopt iris-scanning tools provided on a free trial basis by BI2 Technologies, a private company. Though focused initially on inmate intake facilities, the program may expand to mobile-based tools as well. Using iris-recognition technology, an officer can snap a photo of a person’s eyes for comparison against a private database that includes scores of records collected by other jurisdictions. Even if the software does not identify a match, it saves a copy of the subject’s iris identifier in a private database accessible to BI2, according to The Intercept.

As with other surveillance technologies, the use of iris-recognition technology is likely to have a disproportionate impact on immigrants and communities of color. BI2 executives tout the technology as a tool to help "secure the border" and apprehend violent unauthorized immigrants, leaving the actual implementation to sheriffs themselves. As mobile iris-scanning apps and tools become available, racial profiling by law enforcement could lead to Latinos and people of color having their eyes scanned simply because they speak Spanish or have brown skin.

The potential for the field-based collection of iris information also raises significant privacy and civil rights concerns. If sheriffs start using a mobile iris-recognition app, under what circumstances exactly would deputies subject residents to scanning? Will probable cause always be required? Do sheriffs intend to scan people at checkpoints and during routine stops? Border residents deserve to know.

These are important questions because once collected, iris information goes into a database controlled by a for-profit company. We do not know how long BI2 retains iris information in its database or which employees it allows to access the data collected from a reported 180 law enforcement clients. We do not know what limits exist on access and use of the database by these and other government clients. By blindly submitting information about people’s eyes to BI2’s database, local sheriffs risk constructing a system the Trump Administration may seek to utilize (as the Intercept explains, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement already has direct access to other law enforcement databases). Moreover, there is always a risk that poor security practices could lead to a data breach and the exposure of sensitive information to bad actors.

Such serious issues necessitate a robust public debate. Yet all too often, law enforcement agencies acquire surveillance technology in near-secrecy, relying on federal grant funding or promises of “free” technology from manufacturers, leading to the unregulated deployment of everything from aerial-based surveillance to social media monitoring tools. These technologies are disproportionately used – and misused – to criminalize communities of color and those vulnerable to police abuse.

At the same time, communities across the United States are fighting back. Working with Community Control Over Police Surveillance, a reform effort spearheaded by 17 organizations, including the ACLU, residents in cities and counties in Silicon Valley, Oakland, Seattle, and New York are rallying behind local ordinances that would require transparency, accountability, and oversight for all surveillance proposals. California is also considering a statewide bill that would require a public debate over proposals to acquire surveillance technology and use policies for technologies a community decides to deploy. Residents in border counties can also follow this lead and demand that their voices be heard.

Decisions about the deployment of biometric surveillance are not for sheriffs to make alone. Before taking any steps to adopt this technology, these officials should release public records and invite a public debate about the civil liberties and civil rights costs. Border residents will be watching.

Cross-posted from the blog of the ACLU of Northern California.

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Anonymous

Another misguided piece of advice from the ACLU. You are twisting everything to being against the minorities. That type of screening is being used for security in data centers. Do you feel that they should also stop and put our "cloud" environment at risk? Oversight of the security authorities is one thing, tying their hands is CRAZY!

Gracie Flora

Iris acknowledgment is quite recently the most recent reconnaissance innovation invigorating what the White House expectations will make up a "computerized divider" an idea that many outskirt sheriffs see as less meddling. Help With Coursework Writing

Anonymous

Constitutionally oath-sworn officials ate tampering with users of this site - a federal felony under multiple federal statutes. Where are the prosecutors?

Anonymous

WTF?

Anonymous

Privacy again under attack. This information is stored, and it's use can be manifold depending on the purpose. In any case, it is not benign. Resist. always.

Green Chinese

It's because they are trying to capture the elusive green eyed Chinese or blue eyed Himalayan girl with light brown hair.

Anonymous

No no, it's because honkys can't tell the difference between one beaner and another.

Anonymous

This should be as in taking blood by
A) consent or
B) warrant

No one should be allowed to have any of our biometrics as a matter of routine and it should not be left up to x law officer.

Anonymous

I love Skinheds
Stuff fruit into the tail pipe of police vehicles. Pour salt water into the gas tanks. Paint the vehicles with messages of love and peace. They hate positive messages more than being called a "pig". If you work at a drive through, snot in, piss in, or rub their food on the floor before serving.

Never ever do anything violent, resist peacefully.

A. Nonnymouse

That piece of shit who suggest snotting, pissing in, or rubbing the food of cops on the floor before serving is a complete asshole. I'd like to meet him

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