Need to identify suspects instantly? There's an app for that.

Law enforcement continues to adopt new technologies in an effort to make their jobs easier and keep us safer. The latest gizmo attaches to officers’ iPhones and turns them into biometric face scanners. The scanners have already been street tested in Massachusetts. Pretty soon cops all across the US will be using them to ID suspects.

The gizmo, called MORIS–Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System–has a built in iris scanner and biometrics analysis software. The officer holds the scanner about 5 or 6 inches away and it automatically detects the iris and takes a high-resolution image. Like other iris scanners, the MORIS system identifies 235 distinctive features in each iris. It’s like a fingerprint for the eye–assumedly no two are alike. An algorithm is then used to search for a match with the signatures of others in a database. Pictures of faces can also be used. The picture is snapped from about 2 to 5 feet away and about 130 unique features on the face are identified and metrics are recorded such as the distance between the eyes. Again the database is accessed to see if there’s a match.

MORIS is an offshoot of a technology called IRIS. Developed by BI2 Technologies, IRIS–Inmate Identification and Recognition System–was initially used to address the rather unsettling problem of mistaken inmate identity (last year a Rhode Island inmate escaped by assuming the identity of another scheduled for release). More than 320 law-enforcement agencies in 47 states are using IRIS to keep track of their inmates.

The face recognition is made possible by an algorithm provided by Animetrics, based in Conway, New Hampshire. The company specializes in 2D-to-3D face recognition. Their algorithm uses 2D digital images to generate a 3D avatar upon which the unique features are mapped and measured. The company has developed the FaceR MobileID platform that does pretty much what MORIS does–takes pictures of faces and creates unique ID signatures. They plan to make smartphone apps available soon for law enforcement, military personnel and private and Homeland Security.

The MORIS device combines iris and face recognition with the age-old method of offender identification: fingerprinting. There’s a scanner pad on the device, but when police officers in Brockton, Mass. tested a MORIS prototype the fingerscanning feature performed poorly. Regardless, the convenience and accuracy of the iris and face scanning functions makes MORIS a must-have realtime tool for cops on the go. Instead of calling in license plate numbers or relying on questionable ID numbers cops get quick and highly-accurate answers. And the device is a godsend for identifying people without IDs such as accident victims or homeless people. A physics lab in the UK tested the accuracy of BI2’s iris scanning technology. In over two million samples there wasn’t a single false match.

As the accuracy and use of biometrics-based identification increases so do privacy concerns. Much of the issues that will undoubtedly arise are unprecedented and it will be up to law enforcement and lawmakers to work together to strike a balance between personal rights and public safety. The sheriff’s office of Pinellas County, Florida already uses facial recognition to identify individuals in photos. As it stands, there’s no law against taking pictures of whoever they want without asking. They ask anyway, however, out of common courtesy. But according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, iris scanning could be considered a kind of search. “A warrant might be required to force someone to open their eyes,” George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr told the Journal.

The scans will be run through a national criminal records database. I find it odd, however, that the database is managed by BI2. The automated license plate recognition scanners being used increasingly for police surveillance run checks through an FBI hotlist. In addition to not being run by a private company, the hotlist is updated daily. It’s hard for me to imagine BI2’s database is more complete than that run by the FBI.

The MORIS and an iPhone together weigh just 12.5 ounces–a Minority Report scanner that fits in your pocket. BI2 plans to make their devices available later this year when law enforcement agencies can buy them for $3,000 each. And agencies definitely plan on buying them. Across the country, we could be not smiling and saying cheese as early as September when the device will be made available. When it does, the MORIS will become yet another piece of biometrics technology that’s making its way into our everyday lives. We already have doors that don’t need keys, just your mug, and an API on Facebook allows you to use a person’s picture to locate them in other pictures. It’s only a matter of time before we’re scanning videos to pull out people, places, things. Lifeloggers will find it a handy tool to sift through thousands of hours of video to retrieve vacation footage on the beach or of their children playing with the dog. It’s reassuring that law enforcement is taking a proactive approach to technology. Identifying suspects with an iPhone is enormously better than taking them in, manually searching the database, and making phone calls. In the future, I see these Minority Report scanners on street corners and in shopping malls, operating autonomously to report the presence of a wanton criminal. Unless you’re Tom Cruise and on the run for a murder you’re going to commit, I think the added surveillance will be welcomed.

[image credits: Wall Street Journal]
images: BI2 Technologies

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.