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Iris scans let law enforcement keep eye on criminals

A growing number of sheriff's departments are using iris scans to identify sex offenders, runaways, abducted children and wandering Alzheimer's patients.

More than 2,100 departments in 27 states are taking digital pictures of eyes and storing the information in databases that can be searched later to identify a missing person or someone who uses a fake name, says Sean Mullin, president of BI{+2} Technologies, which sells the devices.

"It's evolving quickly," he says. Most of the sheriffs are doing voluntary iris scans of senior citizens and children.

At least 10 metro areas are doing scans of criminals to identify them should another crime occur or to be sure the right inmate is released.

"This is the wave of the future. This will become as common as fingerprinting," says Sheriff Greg Solano of Santa Fe County, N.M. Last month, his department began scanning the irises of convicted sex offenders. He says the level of detail and central database can make matches within seconds, compared with weeks for fingerprints and months for DNA.

Iris recognition technology has been used by airports to expedite security checks of low-risk travelers and by the government to track possible terrorists. When a patent expired last year, other companies rushed in to expand its uses.

"We're seeing tremendous growth," says Barry Morse, CEO of Retica Systems, because of concerns about terrorism, immigration and identity theft.

Mullin says the laptop, camera and software cost $10,000. The cameras use harmless infrared light to record the iris' minute ridges and valleys. They can detect 235 unique details and differentiate between right and left eyes and those of identical twins, Mullin says. A fingerprint has about 70 details.

Irises aren't affected by age, Lasik eye surgery or disease.

The widening use of iris recognition concerns privacy advocates. Some advocates for children say it could give parents a false sense of security.

"It's part of the growing surveillance society. We're going to be identified and tracked everywhere we go," says Barry Steinhardt, technology program director at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Morse says his company will deliver test devices to the Defense Department next year that will allow it to scan a crowd and store iris data for many people at once.

Mullin says the technology has not identified a missing person because the database is small, but it is gaining more than 2,000 scans every week.

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