Police ID suspects using eye-scanning iPhone

John Cox
28 July, 2011
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An iPhone-based device will soon let police forces identify within seconds a suspect based on facial features, fingerprints, or now the unique features of the human eye.

The blocky device, dubbed MORIS, attaches to the back of an iPhone. To use the iris scan, a police officer holds the phone’s camera about 15 centimetres from the suspect’s face and snaps a close-up of the eye. The software analyses over 200 unique features and, if the suspect’s scan is already in a database, an algorithm matches them and identifies the suspect.

The database is maintained by the US vendor, B12 Technologies of Plymouth, Massachusetts (The Wall Street Journal’s Emily Steel has details on MORIS and B12 in a recent entry in her Digits blog.)

To use facial recognition, the officer snaps a photo from two to five metres away. Using software from Animetrics, MORIS analyses over 100 unique features, and compares them to similar scans in the database. There’s also an integrated fingerprint scanner.

MORIS, or Mobile Offender Recognition, is a mobile version of B12’s original and still existing product, IRIS, which was designed to run an iris scan on prisoners in the US being discharged from gaols to confirm the right person was being released. B12 was founded in 2006 by Sean Mullin and Peter Flynn, customers soon began pressing for a mobile version that could be used by officers on the street, according to Steel’s Wall Street Journal story.

The central database is a key part of all the product offerings. In videos and other news reports, law enforcement officials praise the speed of identifying a suspect. Police officers at a traffic stop or on the street can almost instantly confirm a person’s identity and discover if they have a serious criminal history.

B12 began testing prototypes in the US about a year ago, with the Brockton, Massachusetts, police department, having tapped Animetrics for the facial recognition capability. The company spent the past year making changes based on police feedback, especially improving the fingerprint-recognition feature, and switching the camera orientation from horizontal to vertical. MORIS costs US$3,000, and includes the cost of the smartphone. Together, the two devices weigh 354g. The technology is not currently available in Australia.

Needless to say, the device causes some to worry that it can be used for general surveillance of individuals instead of suspect identification, based on probable cause such as a traffic stop or other incident.

B12 CEO Mullin, in a recent Reuters article, said that covert photographs rarely yield the clear image needed for the ID scans.

“It requires a level of cooperation that makes it very overt—a person knows that you’re taking a picture for this purpose,” Mullin was quoted in the news story.

Police hat image by Everaldo Coelho and YellowIcon via Wikimedia Commons.

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