Why Are Border Sheriffs Rushing to Adopt Iris-Recognition Technology?

Sensitive technologies should not be deployed without democratic debate and input.

By Matt Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Attorney, ACLU of Northern California

AUGUST 30, 2017 | 11:45 PM

President Trump’s border wall proposal is on the ropes, but that has not discouraged border sheriffs from pitching their own misguided scheme. According to a media report, sheriffs along the U.S.-Mexico border are quietly planning to acquire iris-recognition technology with help from a private surveillance company. Pitched in part as a tool to “secure our border,” the use of iris-recognition technology could disproportionately affect those already targeted by the Trump Administration’s policies. This is not only a “biometric wall” — the deployment of iris-scanning equipment would also feed a nationwide database that raises privacy and security concerns.

New surveillance proposals should be subject to public debate. With that goal in mind, ACLU affiliates in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have sent public records requests to every sheriff along the U.S.-Mexico border demanding records of their plans to acquire and use iris-recognition technology.

According to reports, all 31 sheriffs along U.S.-Mexico border voted to adopt iris-scanning tools provided on a free trial basis by BI2 Technologies, a private company. Though focused initially on inmate intake facilities, the program may expand to mobile-based tools as well. Using iris-recognition technology, an officer can snap a photo of a person’s eyes for comparison against a private database that includes scores of records collected by other jurisdictions. Even if the software does not identify a match, it saves a copy of the subject’s iris identifier in a private database accessible to BI2, according to The Intercept.

As with other surveillance technologies, the use of iris-recognition technology is likely to have a disproportionate impact on immigrants and communities of color. BI2 executives tout the technology as a tool to help “secure the border” and apprehend violent unauthorized immigrants, leaving the actual implementation to sheriffs themselves. As mobile iris-scanning apps and tools become available, racial profiling by law enforcement could lead to Latinos and people of color having their eyes scanned simply because they speak Spanish or have brown skin.

The potential for the field-based collection of iris information also raises significant privacy and civil rights concerns. If sheriffs start using a mobile iris-recognition app, under what circumstances exactly would deputies subject residents to scanning? Will probable cause always be required? Do sheriffs intend to scan people at checkpoints and during routine stops? Border residents deserve to know.

These are important questions because once collected, iris information goes into a database controlled by a for-profit company. We do not know how long BI2 retains iris information in its database or which employees it allows to access the data collected from a reported 180 law enforcement clients. We do not know what limits exist on access and use of the database by these and other government clients. By blindly submitting information about people’s eyes to BI2’s database, local sheriffs risk constructing a system the Trump Administration may seek to utilize (as the Intercept explains, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement already has direct access to other law enforcement databases). Moreover, there is always a risk that poor security practices could lead to a data breach and the exposure of sensitive information to bad actors.

Such serious issues necessitate a robust public debate. Yet all too often, law enforcement agencies acquire surveillance technology in near-secrecy, relying on federal grant funding or promises of “free” technology from manufacturers, leading to the unregulated deployment of everything from aerial-based surveillance to social media monitoring tools. These technologies are disproportionately used — and misused — to criminalize communities of color and those vulnerable to police abuse.

At the same time, communities across the United States are fighting back. Working with Community Control Over Police Surveillance, a reform effort spearheaded by 17 organizations, including the ACLU, residents in cities and counties in Silicon Valley, Oakland, Seattle, and New York are rallying behind local ordinances that would require transparency, accountability, and oversight for all surveillance proposals. California is also considering a statewide bill that would require a public debate over proposals to acquire surveillance technology and use policies for technologies a community decides to deploy. Residents in border counties can also follow this lead and demand that their voices be heard.

Decisions about the deployment of biometric surveillance are not for sheriffs to make alone. Before taking any steps to adopt this technology, these officials should release public records and invite a public debate about the civil liberties and civil rights costs. Border residents will be watching.

Cross-posted from the blog of the ACLU of Northern California.