Biometric devices and U.S. law enforcement: smart, but legal?

U.S. law enforcement officers may soon take more than your fingerprints -- they may scan your eyes and

Forty law enforcement agencies in the United States will, by this fall, employ the use of biometric diagnostic equipment to better identify people they come in contact with.

One thousand units of the $3,000 device, officially called the "Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System," or MORIS, are already on order. But a new report by Al-Jazeera English raises questions about the legality of such a system.

First, the facts: inky fingerprinting and polaroid photos are policing techniques of the past. The future involves the use of biometric indicators -- unique physical aspects, such as fingerprints, eye scans and other can't-easily-be-replicated traits -- to properly identify suspects.

The technology exists today, and with the advent of the smartphone, it can easily be made portable. A facial recognition photo, fingerprint and eye scan can all be done with technology that fits in one's pants pocket -- ensuring much more accurate databases and no silly complications along the way, such as hard-to-read handwriting and fuzzy memories.

Plus, identifying suspects in the field saves officers from hauling them down to the precinct.

But the Founding Fathers can't have imagined such a scenario when the Fourth Amendment was passed.

D. Parvaz reports:

But given that two of the three functions of the MORIS could legally be considered to be the sort of "search and seizure" covered by the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment (meaning that a person could, in theory, decline to have their iris scanned or fingerprints taken), law enforcement's ability to use them as intended seems questionable.

"The collection of personal biometric data has many privacy and civil liberties concerns attached to it, including scalability, reliability, accuracy, and security of the data collected," said Amie Stepanovich, national security counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington DC-based public interest group focused on privacy and civil liberty issues.

A key concern, said Stepanovich, is that this technology was essentially developed for a military environment and not for domestic use.

"The potential of this technology for use to track and monitor innocent individuals' personal information cannot be overshadowed. To prevent misuse, warrant requirements must be strictly enforced."

Once again, connected digital technology runs up against privacy norms (and laws).

Plymouth, Mass.-based BI2 Technologies manufactures the MORIS device and asserts in Parvaz's report that the constitutional issues -- what defines "unreasonable" with regard to a search -- "have already been addressed" by the courts.

The question is what we, in 2011, consider unreasonable. Remember: fingerprints are considered reasonable, and they require physical contact, no less. So why should an eye scan be any different?

Mobile biometrics to hit US streets [AJE]

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