The Eyes Have It

Iris Biometric Added to Next Generation Identification System

Two people demonstrate how a device is used to capture imagery of irises for the Next Generation Identification (NGI) Iris Service.

The FBI hopes law enforcement agencies will incorporate iris-capture technology into their existing biometric processes, like police department booking stations or jail intakes and releases.

The FBI’s biometrics toolkit is growing.

The division of the Bureau that manages the national database of fingerprints recently implemented the Next Generation Identification (NGI) Iris Service, which gives the FBI and partner agencies the ability to capture, catalog, and make rapid comparisons of iris images with a high rate of accuracy.

The human iris—the part of the eye that controls the size of the pupil and defines one’s eye color—contains a unique pattern of ridges and folds that are specific to individuals. In the new system, which went in service on September 29, a subject’s irises are captured using a near-infrared camera, which takes just seconds. The FBI hopes law enforcement agencies will adopt the technology and incorporate it into their existing biometric processes, like police department booking stations or jail intakes and releases.

“We are contacting our partners across the country and encouraging them to initiate this program,” said Special Agent Scott Rago, who heads the Biometric Services Section in the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS). “Having the ability where they don't have to have contact with the individual—it just takes a second or two to look into the device and have your eyes captured and you get a response within a minute—it’s a very, very positive system.”

To date, the iris image repository contains 1.38 million enrollments submitted from federal, state, and local databases after they were collected during criminal bookings, incarcerations, or other legal proceedings. The iris images won’t replace fingerprints, which the FBI has collected and analyzed for nearly a century; they are a secondary biometric, or supplement, to the traditional collection of 10-finger prints and palm prints.

The Bureau’s fingerprint database—Next Generation Identification—contains more than 70 million prints of criminal subjects and more than 30 million civil fingerprints from background checks.

Rago said he hopes to see the iris image database grow to where it can make an impact on solving cases.

During the pilot period, which began in September 2013, several correctional systems incorporated iris collection into their processes, which enabled staff to get positive identifications—without physical contact—on inmates as they transferred in and out of facilities. The seven-year pilot enabled the FBI to build the criminal iris repository as well as assess privacy policies, best practices, and other requirements.

In the new system, so-called probe images of a subject’s left and right irises are captured at close range in a controlled setting. The images can then be searched against all the irises in the FBI’s repository. The process takes about a minute. A match will return the subject’s biographic data along with their criminal record, select National Crime Information Center record data, and, in some cases, a mug shot.

The Iris Service is the latest addition to the Bureau’s NGI System, which is the world’s largest and most efficient electronic repository of biometric and criminal information. In addition to repositories for irises and fingerprints, NGI includes 30 million criminal mugshots that law enforcement partners can search against.

Rago said he expects the NGI Iris Service to appeal to police and correctional workers because it’s fast, easy to use, and hands-off.

“In the future, once the repository has grown to a good sample size, you can imagine a police officer on a traffic stop using the mobile iris camera capability,” Rago said. “If someone’s being difficult, they don't even have to put their hands on them. It’s, ‘Look at me,’ and capture the iris. They can run the information and get a response.”

“As people get used to capturing the iris with criminal justice contact, it will become just as useful as a fingerprint.”

Scott Rago, section chief, Biometric Services, Criminal Justice Information Services Division