DHS re-examines iris scans for Registered Traveler

The Homeland Security Department will decide soon on whether to re-establish iris scans within the Registered Traveler program, a measure it had dropped from the program's nationwide rollout, a department official said this week.

In announcing the biometrics for the program Jan. 20, the agency listed only fingerprints, not iris scans. But Kurt Zobrist, director of Registered Traveler, said the issue is not completely decided.

"We at the Transportation Security Administration program office support continuing to look at iris scans," Zobrist said in a conference call interview Jan. 25. "I'm looking at days, rather than months, to resolve this."

In using iris biometrics, travelers have their irises photographed and enrolled into a database. The scans were included in Registered Traveler pilot projects at selected airports, sponsored by TSA.

Iris recognition also was included in TSA's request for information when it announced December 2005 it was expanding Registered Traveler. TSA said it would do a nationwide rollout of a privatized Registered Traveler in 2006, and asked vendors to submit a business model that included enrolling 10 fingerprints and two irises for volunteers.

However, in details announced Jan. 20, TSA told contractors it was looking for 10 fingerprints only.

Zobrist said the iris scans worked effectively in the pilot projects, but fingerprints alone were chosen because they better coordinate with other federal biometric identification programs, such as FBI and immigration databases, which also use fingerprints.

"There is no operational data that suggested we didn't want to use irises. In fact, iris scans worked as well as fingerprints," Zobrist said.

Using iris identification also has advantages over fingerprints. It's faster to scan irises to enroll large numbers of people, and the scans have a low false-rejection rate. They also conform to international iris screening systems being used in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Zobrist said.

Frank Fitzsimmons, chief executive of Iridian Technologies Inc. of Moorestown, N.J., one of the largest makers of iris recognition equipment, said he is optimistic that TSA will include iris scans in Registered Traveler, primarily because of its high accuracy rate, ease of enrollment and conformity with iris scans in other countries.

"We're pretty hopeful that it will be back in by June," Fitzsimmons said. He called the Jan. 20 announcement "a surprise."

If TSA changes its mind, Fitzsimmons said, it would not be difficult to re-integrate iris scans into Registered Traveler. Many prospective contractors already have submitted business plans for the program based on TSA's December announcements asking for iris scans and fingerprints.

Fitzsimmons also said new high-speed cameras are making iris enrollment faster and less invasive than ever. With the new cameras, people's irises can be scanned even while "walking forward at a brisk pace" as long as the person's eyes are open.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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