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Despite Appearances, the FBI Isn’t “All In” on Iris


According to a report published earlier this week, the FBI has amassed over 434,000 iris records as part of a pilot project connected to the Next Generation Identification (NGI) database.

This seems pretty impressive at first glance, but in context it’s actually quite modest. The FBI processes millions of fingerprint transactions every day. The number of irises on file is really minimal when compared to the hundreds of millions of fingerprint records in NGI.

The biometrics industry isn’t concerned with how fast the FBI is moving with an iris search capability. Rather, it is concerned with how slow the process has become.

When the pilot project started in 2013, many assumed that the Bureau’s commitment to iris guaranteed its status as the “next big thing.” The military has collected and matched these records for over a decade, yet the NGI pilot was the first time that a civilian agency ventured into this territory. Quite a few companies made business plans on the assumption that the FBI’s use of iris would open up new markets and use cases.

Unfortunately, the FBI’s pilot has dragged on far longer than many expected. It has collected a decent number of records as part of the pilot project. However, the FBI has yet to build a search capability which NGI users can access, or even define the parameters of the search capability it wants to build.

Specifications for Iris Capture

The FBI has yet to address standards for iris capture. They currently use the Appendix F procedure to certify the quality of fingerprint capture devices. This is a basic specification which all hardware manufacturers must meet in order to sell equipment to law enforcement customers. Unfortunately, no equivalent standard exists for iris devices.

This lack of guidance continues to stunt the market for iris technology. Customers are wary of purchasing a device which may one day fall short of the specifications for submission to NGI and (it is assumed) other government databases. Manufacturers of iris equipment are reluctant to develop new technologies for fear that they won’t meet the FBI’s standards, whatever those may turn out to be.

The possibility that the Department of Homeland Security will surpass them is yet another marker of how slow the FBI is moving on iris. The Office of Biometric Identity Management at DHS has an iris pilot project of its own. This project may eventually pave the way for the use of irises as part of a biometric exit program. The pilot will soon be folded into the procurement of a new database to replace the current IDENT system. This will open up the technical back-end for matching which the FBI currently lacks. The FBI’s pilot project holdings will quickly start to look very small in comparison if DHS starts collecting iris images from the millions of travelers who stream through US ports of entry every day.

The FBI traditionally sets the standard in biometrics. Whatever the Bureau blesses, customers and the industry soon follow. Yet when it comes to irises, the FBI may end up “leading from behind.”

Ben Ball is the Government Market Director at Crossmatch, where he oversees market intelligence and strategic outreach to government customers around the world. A ten year veteran of the Federal government, Ben was a Foreign Service Officer and worked in the Department of Homeland Security.
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