Last week, USA Today reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was to begin testing new iris-scanning technology that stores digital images of people's eyes in a database. The two-week test of the new technology is to be conducted on immigrants that officers from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency encounter at the border. Iris-scanning technology conjures fears of Big Brother totalitarianism, brings to mind science-fiction films like Minority Report, and has drawn the ire of civil liberties groups. American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Christopher Calabrese tells USA Today that many fear that the iris-scanning cameras could be used covertly. "If you can identify any individual at a distance and without their knowledge, you literally allow the physical tracking of a person anywhere there's a camera and access to the Internet."
Jeff Carter, chief business development officer of Global Rainmakers, Inc. (GRI), the company that developed the technology, plays down the privacy concerns. Fast Company interviewed Carter in August, 2010 after the company installed the iris scanner technology in Leon, Mexico, to track all residents and create an iris database. In Mr. Carter’s view, our expectations of privacy are already significantly reduced in favor of convenience. Banks, for instance, already have a great deal of information about each credit card user, and Americans would be willing to sacrifice more privacy for more conveniences. "In the future, whether it's entering your home, opening your car, entering your workspace, getting a pharmacy prescription refilled, or having your medical records pulled up, everything will come off that unique key that is your iris," he said. "Minority Report is one possible outcome. I don't think that's our company's aim, but I think what we're going to see is an environment well beyond what you see in that movie -- minus the precogs, of course. The banks already know more about what we do in our daily life--they know what we eat, where we go, what we purchase -- our deepest secrets. We're not talking about anything different here -- just a system that's good for all of us."
Unchecked Spending on Border Issues
Reports about the new iris-scanning technology emerged on the same week that National Public Radio aired a three-part series on "Operation Streamline," a federal program designed to rapidly push immigrants caught entering the country illegally through the court system. NPR not only highlights how Operation Streamline has little proof of success and may violate the U.S. Constitution’s due process protections, but also reports that there are no clear estimates of the program’s costs. A May 14 Los Angeles Times opinion article reached similar conclusions, calling the program “costly” and “a waste of taxpayer dollars. With “secure our borders!” becoming an increasingly popular conservative rallying cry, politicians who may otherwise consider themselves fiscally conservative are willing to throw money at the problem with little concern for accountability. For example, despite the program’s lack of fiscal transparency and no reliable cost estimates, Arizona Republican John Kyl told NPR, "We have to guess at it and just say, 'OK, here, we'll give you $50 million, how much will that do?' " With such unchecked spending on border issues, DHS appears to be taking advantage of the lack of oversight and using this money to test controversial and expensive new technologies like iris scanners. The agency appears to be freed from many of the accountability requirements attached to other appropriated funds.
Finding Test Subjects Who Won't Complain
From a civil liberties and human rights perspective, the people DHS has selected as their test subjects should raise even greater concern. By preliminarily testing the iris-scanning technology on immigrants who lack both a voice and a vote, DHS may reduce the risk of being called out for violating civil liberties. Those who have just been caught crossing the border are likely too tired, hungry, and scared to complain about an iris scan, and besides, they aren’t constituents anyway. DHS can thereby avoid the outcry that arose when the agency tried implementing body scanning technology on citizens in airports. Security is extremely important, but so is fiscal responsibility, transparency, and maintaining basic civil liberties. Lawmakers and the public must hold DHS accountable not only for its spending -- and misspending -- but also for its efforts that may undermine our constitutionally-secured liberties.