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Cover Story
Iris Biometrics
Eyeing the Future
By E. Robert Bertolli, OD, FACFEI, DABCHS, CMI-V
      D.R. Pannone, OD, CHS-V, CMI-V
      Max D. Venard, OD, CHS-III, CMI-V


Seventeen years after a young boy was abducted, a man stepped forward and reported that he was the long lost child after he came across the boy’s profile and photo on the back of a milk carton. However, authorities could not positively confirm his identification using the child’s photograph because an individual’s facial features are not fully developed until adulthood. Therefore, authorities had to rely on traditional methods of biometrics for identification, such as DNA and fingerprints, both of which are generally time consuming and costly. When law enforcement officials are working on missing children investigations, time is of the essence, especially when an anxious family is awaiting confirmation on the condition or whereabouts of their missing child.

Biometrics is the development of statistical and mathematical methods that are used for data analysis in the biological sciences. The term originated from the Greek words “bio” (life) and “metric” (to measure). Today, biometrics involves the study and technologies that analyze a person’s physiological or behavioral characteristics and mainly used for identification and verification:

  • Identification determines the identity of a person using his or her individual characteristics, which can be measured and compared to the patterns or records of others in a database.
  • Verification compares a person’s measured characteristic to his or her existing pattern or record for a determination of identity.

There are two types of biometrics—behavioral and physical:

  • Behavior biometrics is used for verification and includes the following:
    • Signature
    • Keystroke
    • Speaker or vocal recognition

  • Physical biometrics is used for either identification or verification and includes the following:
    • Bertillonage
    • Fingerprint
    • Facial recognition
    • Hand geometry
    • Iris scans
    • Retinal scan
    • Vascular patterns
    • DNA

History of Biometrics

The first reported practice of biometrics was discovered in China in the 14th Century by the Portuguese explorer João de Barros. During his travels to Asia, Barros reported witnessing Chinese merchants using ink and paper to take children’s palm and footprints for identification purposes.

In the 1890s, Alphonse Bertillon, a French anthropologist and police desk clerk, created the first distinct field of study for biometrics. Bertillon began recording multiple body measurements of criminals—including head, body, and individual markings such as tattoos or scars for the use of identifying convicted criminals. He also proposed the use of studying and recording details of the colors and patterns in the iris to help with the identification process. The body measurement system became known as Bertillonage. Yet authorities and researchers discovered that this method could lead to inconsistent results because the technique relied on individuals to take and record the measurements, leaving a margin for human error to occur. However, mistakes in measurement were not the only drawbacks that threatened the reliability of Bertillonage. In 1903, authorities discovered a case in which two people had the exact same body measurements. This proved that Bertillonage could not be utilized as an accurate or trusted method for identification because body measurements are not truly unique.

Sir Edward Richard Henry, author of Classification and Uses of Finger Prints, developed the first fingerprint identification system for law enforcement use. The Henry System of Fingerprint Classification spread worldwide after the fingerprint branch at New Scotland Yard was created in 1901. The New York State Prison began using the fingerprint system in 1903, and other U.S. penitentiaries and police departments quickly followed.

In 1936, ophthalmologist Frank Burch first proposed that iris patterns could be used as a method for personal identification. However, it was Hollywood that would first utilize the idea in the infamous spy thriller movies about the secret missions of Special Agent 007, James Bond. But it wasn’t until the late 80s that iris biometrics managed to escape its science-fiction conceptualization and become a reality. Ophthalmologists Aran Safir and Leonard Flom patented the idea in 1987 and two years later they contacted Harvard professor John Daugman to create algorithms for iris recognition. Upon creating the algorithms, Daugman patented them in 1994. They are now owned by Iridian Technologies.

U.S. law enforcement agencies began utilizing the technology in 1994, soon after the Lancaster County Prison first incorporated it into its prisoner identification system.

Today, iris biometrics is a technology utilized worldwide. Its accuracy, convenience, and reliability make it an ideal method to use for both identification and verification. There are many examples of how iris biometric applications are being used:

  • National Institute of Justice has tested iris biometrics, and inmates are now being tracked in prison using this technology with an apparent increase in efficiency (Miles 2006).
  • The state of North Carolina employs iris biometrics in its tracking of registered sex offenders (govtech.com, 2006).
  • In the field, the U.S. military has also used multiple biometrics, including iris identification. The application assist in indentifying possible foes who are hiding among civilians. Foreign fighters and vetted individuals have also become a part of the growing iris and fingerprint databases in Afghanistan and in Iraq (The Biometrics Task Force 2009).
  • Iris biometrics is being used in pilot studies for positive customer identification at tellers’ windows and in the development of ATM and home banking iris identification systems (Bankersonline.com,2000).
  • In health care, medical facilities can match patients to their electronic medical records using iris biometrics. This may also reduce the risks of medical insurance fraud, and may help with the implementation of the “Red Flag Rule” (Toporov 2009.)
  • Frequent air travelers may soon be able to use iris biometrics for speedy authentication. Once identification is achieved, they may pass through a separate security lane, typically in less than four minutes (GovernmentSecurity.com, 2008).
  • Iris biometrics can be used in computer access and security to increase efficiency by eliminating the need for changing, creating, or memorizing multiple passwords (Smartcomputing.com, 2002). In Connecticut, 1,300 licensed inspectors of motor vehicle emissions testing equipment must authenticate via iris biometrics. This protocol effectively prevents unauthorized personnel from operating restricted equipment (Fournier 2005).
  • In the United Arab Emirates, individuals have a national identification card that incorporates multiple biometric data, including iris codes (http://www.uaeinteract.com/DOCS/National_identity_cards_to_carry_iris_scan_and_biometric_data/28868.htm 2/28/2008).

Introduction to Iris Recognition and Scans

The iris is the most detailed, unique, and stable biometric characteristic of the human body. Iris scans contain more biometric data than any other biometric system except for DNA analysis. Thus, making it the ideal characteristic to use for identification and verification purposes plus, it offers the easiest and fastest method of access for both analyzing and scanning. Every iris pattern is unique, including the left and right eye of the same individual. Even identical twins have unique iris patterns.

The iris code is composed of over 
240–260 of the 400 possible potential distinctive characteristics located in the horizontal areas of the iris. In the colored tissue surrounding the pupil, the iris is made up of unique characteristics, ridges, crypts, freckles, and furrows that are instrumental in composing the code. The accuracy rate is reported at 1 x 1078. Iris patterns are fully formed by the 12 months of age and become permanent at puberty. Patterns in the iris do not change over time and will change very little with injury or disease. However, pigmentation in the iris may change or decrease due to age or certain medications such as prostaglandin glaucoma therapies. But the underlying iris structure remains unchanged.

Scanning the iris code is a non-invasive and safe technique that is psychologically acceptable. This process can be done in real-time and only requires minimum invasiveness using lighting or a strobe. The digital scan, or more accurately, the video photograph is taken at a distance of 10-18 inches from the subject’s eyes. Pigment is not imaged in modern iris biometrics since infrared imaging essentially makes the pigment invisible. Only the iris architecture is imaged.

The iris code is only viable for the live identification of a subject. The scan is typically activated by, but not limited to, the constriction and dilation of the pupil and therefore, a stolen or dead eye will not allow the system to be functional. Unlike instances in which live confirmation was not included in the access system, individuals have been successful in using severed digits to activate a fingerprint access device. Although the iris scan will never fully replace fingerprints, it is constructed to provide another layer of security for identification verifications and can be accessed at a much faster rate.

One of the authors has demonstrated the acquisition of iris detail in the deceased eye where the ocular media clouds, using infrared digital imaging. This has been presented at several conferences (Figure 4).

Advantages of Iris Biometrics

According to researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Johnson and Grace, iris biometrics offers numerous advantages over other biometric techniques, including commercial retinal scanning systems.

Key advantages include:

  • Iris biometrics produces more content than any other biometric data, except DNA.
  • It can be used for both verification and identification.
  • Iris verification uses video and can be performed in real-time.
  • It is a non-harmful and non-invasive procedure.
  • Psychological acceptance is much higher than other biometric techniques.
  • Privacy and legality issues are relatively minor compared to other biometric techniques.
  • Contact lenses, glasses, and medications do not affect the results.
  • Digitalizing high-quality photographs of an individuals face may be used to compare iris patterns.

Uses for Iris Biometrics

Iris biometrics can be used for multiple purposes including securing controlled-access sites; accessing academic, financial, or medical records; border and customs control, national security, law enforcement, forensics, and counter-terrorism.

The Child ProjectTM and the Senior Safety NetTM Programs

The practical aspect of iris code banking was first introduced in May 2005 to county sheriffs offices across the United States. Today, some 1,600-plus departments in over 46 states utilize the system. Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies (BI2 Technologies) of Plymouth, Massachusetts, is the parent company of The Children’s Identification and Location Database, also known as The Child Project. This is the vehicle by which parents and families can allow their local sheriff’s office to scan and bank their children’s iris characteristics in the project’s databank in Phoenix, Arizona. This databank is secure and is hosted by The Nation’s Missing Children’s Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults. Sean Mullins is the founder and president of The Child Project and BI2 Technologies. The BI2 system for the child and senior projects is provided through a grant by the National Sheriffs Association (NSA) and serves most of the states. This grant provides the unit at no cost to the department, which otherwise would have cost several thousand dollars to purchase. The instrument itself provides verbal directions, and operator training requires only a few minutes, mostly in demonstrating how to properly enter the subject’s data. Scanning, uploading, and comparison are quite simple and fairly rapid.

The Child Project and Senior Safety Net systems enable law enforcement agencies to enroll, identify, and locate missing children and adults through the use of iris recognition biometric technology. In The Child Project, a parent or guardian registers their child and provides routine contact information and authorizes the scanning and storing of the child’s iris biometric data. The camera unit as utilized in BI2 Technologies automatically directs the subject verbally to adjust the distance from the instrument and direct the eyes toward the instrument. The instrument records each eye, or if monocular, the left or right eye. The instrument assesses the image scan and informs the operator if the acquisition was satisfactory or must be repeated. The facial image is also recorded. The encrypted biometric information is then uploaded and transmitted to a secure database, where it remains until the parent requests its removal or is removed automatically when the child becomes 17 years of age, unless otherwise directed.

The databanks are accessible to sheriffs’ offices 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, using a Web-based service. A databank of 200,000 codes can be searched in 3–5 seconds without any false positives being matched in over 2 million accesses. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsal and Dr. Max Venard were able to scan and bank iris codes for over 700 children between the ages of 6-–14 in 10 days at the Oklahoma State Fair.

The Senior Safety Net is a sister program to The Child Project. Both programs rely on iris biometrics to positively identify missing children and seniors. The Senior Safety Net enrolls adults and seniors, many of whom have diminished or limited mental capacity. Both programs allow for a rapid comparison to be made in the iris biometric database to confirm the identification of individuals, whether they are in a non-verbal state, or attempting to be deceptive, such as a runaway. Through Dr. Max Venard’s efforts, both The Child Project and Senior Safety Net have been promoted and secured endorsements by the American Optometric Association.

A grant was also made possible by the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to help enable sheriffs and law enforcement agencies nationwide to join the national network of agencies that have already implemented The Child Project, Senior Safety Net, Inmate Recognition and Identification System (I.R.I.S), and the Sex Offender Recognition and Identification System (SORIS).

Mobile Offender Recognition and Identification System

The Mobile Offender Recognition and Identification System (MORIS) is a cell phone–based fingerprint, face recognition and iris biometric scanning platform with applications in law enforcement and homeland security, that allows access to databases from the field. Practical applications include identification of gang members, sex offenders, parolees, warrants, and probationers. These systems in general also enable agencies to better identify, register, and track inmates and convicted sex offenders.

Sex Offender Registry & Identification System

The Sex Offender Registry & Identification System (SORIS) scans the subject’s iris biometric information and deposits it in a database of sexual offenders. Sexual offenders are required to report to authorities on a regular basis, and the SORIS system is utilized to monitor these visits by verifying the offenders’ identity. This prevents any cases of misidentification should an offender send a substitute to report to the authorities on his or her behalf.

Inmate Recognition and Identification System

IRIS is used in booking, tracking the inmate through the correction system, and directing and ensuring that individuals are where they should be in the system and not inadvertently released, impersonating another inmate or exchanging positions with a visitor.


Although iris biometric systems will never replace fingerprinting, it does provide a faster and more efficient means of tracking and managing offenders, reuniting missing children and seniors, and provides an alternative and cost–effective solution for confirming identification, verification, and access-control.

Straight out of the sci-fi movies to your local sheriff’s department—iris biometrics is a technology that is rapidly expanding its applications, techniques, and uses. In the very near future, it may become the standard practice used for all personal identification, verification, and access-controlled security purposes.


(All Web addresses accessed 10/22/09)

Associated Press. 2006. Photos dropped on Iowa mom’s doorstep add twist to 1982 missing boy case. (September 12) http://www.foxnews.com/story/o,2922,213507,00.html

The Child Project. http://www.thechildproject.org

Senior Safety Net. http://www.seniorsafetynet.org.

BBC News. 2009. ‘Fake Fingerprint’ Chinese Woman Fools Japan Controls.(December 7). http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/8400222.stm

Miles, Christopher A. and Jeffrey P. Cohn. 2006. Tracking Prisoners in Jail with Biometrics, An Experiment in a Navy Brig. National Institute of Justice 253 (January). http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/253/tracking.html

Government Technology. 2006. Biometrics Used to Track Sex Offenders in North Carolina. July 17. http://www.govtech.com/gt/100224

Biometrics Task Force. 2006. Biometrics on the Ground and in the DOD. Soldiers: The Official U.S. Army Magazine 65:8.(August).http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/06/01/21940-biometrics-on-the-ground-and-in-the-dod/

Bankersonline.com. 2000. Biometrics in Banking. Bankers Online Hotline 9: 12. http://www.bankersonline.com/articles/bhr09n12/bhr09n12a2.html

Toporoff, Steven. 2009. The Red Flags Rule: What Health Care Providers Need to Know About Complying with New Requirements for Fighting Identity Theft. (May). http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/articles/art11.shtm.

American City and County. 2008. Iris Readers Speed Travelers Through Security . (May 1). http://americancityandcounty.com/security/transportation/iris_readers_speed_travelers/.

Smartcomputing.com.2002.Forget Your Password, Use Your Body as a Key Biometrics Technology Boom.6:8: 101-16. http://www.smartcomputing.com/Editorial/article.asp?article=articles/archive/r0608/21r08/21r08.asp&guid=.

Fournier, Thomas. 2005. Iris-Scan Authentication Cuts Fraud in Connecticut Vehicle Emissions Testing. Government Technology. (June17). http://www.govtech.com/gt/articles/94298

Daugman, John and Cathryn Downing. 2001. Epigenetic Randomness, Complexity, and Singularity of Human Iris Patterns, Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 268: 1737-1740. http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~jgd1000/roysoc.pdf

Warwick, R. Eugene Wolff’s Anatomy of the Eye and Orbit. London: HK Lewis and Co. 1976.

Glaucoma Research Foundation. Glaucoma Medications and Their Side Effects. http://www.glaucoma.org/treating/glaucoma_medica.php

AOA News, American Optometric Association. 2008. Optometrist Turns Vision Expertise to Help Find Missing Children. (September 4). http://aoanews.org/x8616.xml

American Optometric Association. 2009. House of Delegates Proposed Resolution. http://aoap.org/PDF_files/iris_scanning/AOAResolution2009.pdf

Kent, Jonthan. 2005. Malasian Car Thieves Steal Finger. BBC News. (March 31). http://news.bbc.co,uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/4396831.stm

Christensen, Bill. 2007. Covert Iris Scanner Close To Minority Report Future. Technovelgy.com. (Feb 08). http://technovelgy.com/ct/Science-Fiction-News.asp?NewsNum=930.

Braun, David. 2003. How They Found National Geographic’s Afghan Girl. National Geographic News. (March 7). http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/03/0311_020312_sharbat.html

Johnston, Roger and Grace Wynne. 1996. Bartus Iris Biometrics. Los Alamos National Laboratory. (July 19) http://www.osti.gov/bridge/purl.cover.jsp;jsessionid=360ADDD21DA5F044B4F50EE101904F3A?purl=/262980-8mfEg1/webviewable/

History of Biometrics. http://ctl.ncsc.dni.us/biomet%20web/BMHistory.html.

Dr. E.R. Bertolli

Dr. E.R. Bertolli, OD, FACFEI, DABCHS, CMI-V, practices behavioral and advanced optometry. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Fairfield University and his doctorate of optometry from New England College of Optometry.

Dr. D.R. Pannone

Dr. D.R. Pannone, OD, CMI-V, CHS-V, is a behavioral optometrist who has been practicing in Norwich, CT since 1960. He received a bachelors of science degree from University of Rhode Island in 1953 and a bachelors of science degree in. O.D. from Massachusetts College of Optometry 1958.

Dr. Max D. Venard

Dr. Max D. Venard, CHS-III, CMI-V, is an optometric physician in private practice in Moore, Oklahoma. He is a graduate of Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee, and earned a bachelor of science degree from Oklahoma State University.


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