Fox Tech Watch: Sheriff Deploys Iris Scanning Technology

A county in Arizona is joining the ranks of progressive correctional agencies, embracing state of the art biometric technology to improve operations and public safety. The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office is deploying biometric iris scanning technology and quickly demonstrating best practices in their approach to operational utilization and adoption.

Commander John Russell of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office recently met with us to discuss this initiative. Russell, a 25-year law enforcement veteran, has dual responsibility over correctional facilities and the county’s Law Enforcement Criminal Investigations Bureau. The correctional facilities house detainees and sentenced inmates and average well over 10,000 bookings per year. According to the commander, iris scanning technology will be implemented in the detention and criminal investigations divisions.

Biometric technology is the science of identifying or verifying a person based on physiological or behavioral characteristics through automated analysis of the unique traits of an individual. Identification involves determining who a person is. Verification is determining if a person is who they say they are based on comparison to previously measured biometric data. Examples of the most commonly used physiological biometrics technology are facial recognition, fingerprint, hand geometry and iris recognition. Behavioral biometrics includes voice recognition and signature.

Iris scan technology uses mathematical algorithms to analyze the random patterns of the iris. The iris is the pigmented muscle within the eye that controls the pupil and the amount of light that enters the eye. It has a highly complex structural pattern, including such characteristics as rings and furrows and is unique to each person.

Iris recognition is arguably the most accurate form of biometrics in use today. One of the reasons is the sheer numbers of unique characteristics that are measurable within the irises far outnumber other biometrics such as in fingerprints. Additionally, the iris is naturally protected by the cornea and its patterns remain stable over a person’s lifetime, which is not the case with other physical data points such as ears, fingers, and face.

The use of iris scanning to meet critical identity authentication needs has steadily increased internationally in the private and public sectors. Applications include banking, building access control, aviation security, health care, schools and border-crossing. Iris scanning is also becoming a valuable tool in law enforcement and corrections.

In the Yavapai County jails, the technology will be used with both the detainee and sentenced populations. All inmates will be scanned using permanent fixed units mounted in the booking area. Scanning will occur upon the initial booking, as well as when inmates re-enter the system after being released from custody. The first time the inmate is enrolled, the iris “signature” is entered into the central database. In all cases when an inmate enters the system they will be scanned and the images compared to those in the database. If the inmate has been enrolled in the past his identity will be verified within seconds. Additionally, if an inmate attempts to use an alias, staff will be alerted.
In addition to intake, the iris scans will be used for all inmates exiting the facility whether it be for hospital, court and other trips, community work crews or release from custody.

Inmate accountability and positive identification upon egress is paramount to institution security and public safety. Releasing the wrong inmate from custody can have obvious catastrophic consequences. The superiority of iris scanning has enormous advantages over predominantly used authentication methods such as passwords, IDs, PINs, RFID cards, personal identifiers and photos. Unlike those methods, iris patterns cannot be stolen, copied, forged, lost, shared or misinterpreted. It is virtually impossible for an inmate to steal someone else’s identity. Given the higher degree of accuracy than even fingerprints, iris scans provide the highest likelihood of ensuring proper releases.

Another benefit is that the technology will be integrated with the Jail Management System (JMS), which will eliminate redundancy and result in less data entry and inquiry for staff. Not having to look things up in multiple systems means better utilization of staff time. Because identification is done within seconds the booking and release process will go much quicker, Russell says. In fact, his approach to implementing any new technology is ensuring that only those that can interface with the JMS are deployed to maximize efficiencies and ensure data integrity.

The Yavapai County Law Enforcement Criminal Investigations Bureau will also use the technology. Handheld mobile units will be deployed to deputies in the field. According to Russell, officers will now be able to take fingerprint, photo, GPS and iris scans from virtually anywhere within seconds, a significant improvement over their current capabilities. The system will search against the SORIS database, which contains more than 300,000 individuals across the nation. If the person had been released from a participating agency, officers will immediately know the identity of the individual and if he or she is a sex offender. Russell is particularly looking forward to the long-term benefits of sharing information. The open cooperation among counties in the state will allow for better collaboration among participating jurisdictions in managing offender populations.

Adoption of any new technology is key to long-term success. In Yavapai County, implementation of iris scanning is highly supported by both Russell and Sheriff Scott Mascher. A number of staff were involved in reviewing the technology and assessing how it could be implemented most effectively to meet their operational needs and public safety goals. The reception from staff has been positive and the commander indicated that they are very much looking forward to using iris scanning technology. The system will require minimal training, and the ease of use, time savings, and streamlined data entry and inquiry will also help adopt this technology smoothly.

For the future, the county is exploring ways to expand the use of iris scanning to areas such as medical records and medication distribution.