For over a year and a half, the Mexican government has been collecting an unprecedented amount of biometric data from minors ages 4 to 17 as part of a youth ID card program.The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that the data is being gathered for Personal Identity Cards for minors. This I.D. card, according to Mexican authorities, will help streamline registration in schools and health facilities and comes embedded with digital records of iris images, fingerprints, a photograph and a signature for each minor.
The ID card project is part of the integration of Mexico’s National Population Register (RENAPO), which is intended to provide a unique identity system to conclusively prove identities of all Mexican citizens. Under the program, the Ministry of the Interior will issue Citizen Identity Cards and Personal Identity Cards containing biometric information, first to youth, and later extending to Mexico’s entire adult population. Since July of 2009, when President Felipe Calderón officially announced the creation of RENAPO, numerous observers have sounded the alarm that the endeavor violates individuals’ privacy rights. Despite serious concerns raised by a governmental accountability agency and a special commission tasked with studying the program, in January of 2011 Mexico nevertheless became the first country in the world to use iris scans as a component of ID cards.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has been expanding its biometrics source from fingerprint to iris and facial recognition for identity verification. In addition to collecting iris and facial images on suspected illegal immigrants or immigrants arrested at border patrol stations,the DHS is also developing a program called Future Attribute Screening Technology.
The purpose of the program is to “detect cues indicative of mal-intent” based on factors including ethnicity, gender, breathing, and heart rate. Kimberly Weissman, spokeswoman for the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) office has said that “the department is exploring additional biometric modalities such as face and iris to determine what may be possible to implement in our operational environments, whether it be for enforcement or Trusted Traveler programs.”
The Obama administration has also approved procedures for embedding iris images into federal employees ID cards while the Federal Bureau of Investigation has allotted a $1 billion multi-year upgrade on its database or repository in order to accommodate iris and facial images. The FBI is reportedly working with Massachusetts-based BI2 Technologies and plans to launch a pilot nationwide database of iris scans by 2014.
As it is, already 47 states have been collecting iris data in prisons as part of inmate identification. This has been underway for six years.
B12 Technologies is also rolling out a biometric device which is built into an iPhone app that can be used remotely to recognize and identify people based on iris, face, or fingerprint.
In addition to the FBI’s “iris repository,” it is also expanding upon its use of facial recognition technology. Last year, the agency announced that it wants to allow local police to identify unknown subjects in photos. Iris scanning technology is not without its problems, however. There are obvious civil liberties concerns surrounding the collection of biometric data on a nationwide scale–even if only restricted to convicts.
But, there is evidence that this type of data collection will eventually not be reserved for criminals only. Privacy issues are another concern. BI2 Technologies has said that its iris technology does address privacy issues–subjects have to “agree to enroll and participate” in order to have their eyes photographed.
However, because all of BI2’s iris scans from across the United States are stored centrally on a server located in Texas, the overall safety and security of the technology is questionable. And, though the iris scans are encrypted, there still exists the possibility that hackers could gain access. It was also recently discovered, at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, that it is possible to spoof a biometric iris scanning system. This can be done with the use of synthetic images derived from real irises.
The revelation of this flaw sparked debate in Israel, which eventually led to a Supreme Court hearing in which this potential vulnerability was the focus. So, though the iris is believed to provide the most reliable identification results among all the various biometric traits that can be measured for machine identification, it is still susceptible to being hacked just like the others–fingerprints, face, voice, and keystroke dynamics.
This glitch not only confirms the presence of a security hole in commercial iris-recognition systems, but also demonstrates that B12 Technologies incorrectly stated on its website that biometric templates “cannot be reconstructed, decrypted, reverse-engineered or otherwise manipulated to reveal a person’s identity.”
Additionally, of the Mexican minors who have been registered into the country’s Personal Identification system, 1,345 had to go through the process a second time, due to the subpar quality of the biometric data the first time around.
Because of these concerns, EFF issued this word of caution:
Any new detection of biometric system flaws is relevant in the context of the massive governmental identification programs moving forward at the global level. There’s India’s bid to create the world’s largest database of irises, fingerprints and facial photos, for example, and Argentina’s creation of a nationwide biometric database containing millions of digital fingerprints. Just this week in Israel, High Court justices criticized a planned biometric database as a “harmful” and “extreme” measure. Lawmakers who approve such identification schemes should give serious consideration to any new information surfacing about biometric system vulnerabilities.”
For more information on the U.S. government’s use of biometrics, visit the Biometric Center of Excellence. And, for updates on biometrics in relation to civil liberties, check out the EFF for updates, press releases and any legal proceedings.