OT: Biometrics breaks into prisons: Inmates identified by scanning their irises, voice prints

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Biometrics Breaks Into Prisons
by Vince Beiser
3:00 a.m. 21.Aug.99.PDT

Guards in Florida's Sarasota County Jail can tell which inmates should be released just by the look in their eyes.

Since last year, the jail has used a high-tech system that scans people's retinas to determine their identity. The system, made by Iriscan Inc., has already caught two cons trying to escape by posing as other prisoners up for release; it has also proved that three people brought in on warrants who insisted the cops had the wrong guy really were the wanted men.

The Sarasota lockup is just one of a fast-growing number of correctional facilities that are beefing up security using biometrics.

Biometric technologies use body parts or behaviors, from voice prints to hand geometry, to identify individuals. In use for over a decade at top-security government institutions, biometrics are spilling rapidly into other markets, driven by falling prices and growing public acceptance.

Thousands of locations, from day care centers to health clubs to sperm banks, already monitor people's fingerprints, retinas, or other personal parts to make sure they are who they claim to be. Total industry sales have surged from US$16 million in 1996 to an estimated $60 million this year, according to industry analyst Erik Bowman.

This swelling industry is finding a natural market in America's booming jails and prisons. The number of people behind bars has almost quadrupled since 1980 to nearly 2 million, and continues to rise. All of those inmates, as well as the guards who watch them and the loved ones who visit them, have to be monitored to ensure that only the right ones go in -- and out.

Biometrics, more convenient to use and much harder to fool than systems based on identity cards or photos, seem tailor-made for a market that is based on controlling people's movements.

"Prisons are potentially a huge market for us," said Bill Spence, vice president of Identix, which manufacturers a digital fingerprint scanning system. "It could be worth hundreds of millions, no question."

In the last two years, Identix's scanners have been adopted by several California Youth Authority lockups, and are scheduled to be brought online in 16 California state prisons, mainly to regulate employee access. According to Spence, the company is also currently negotiating with the federal Bureau of Prisons about installing its technology at its facilities nationwide.

Some federal prisons already use biometric hand-readers made by Recognition Systems, Inc. A scattering of county jails from Florida to Utah rely on retina scanners sold by Eyedentify, Inc. -- devices familiar to anyone who has seen True Lies or any of several other movies that have featured them.

Iriscan's first prison system was only installed in 1996, in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, but national sales manager Ross Fidler expects exponential growth. "By the end of this year we'll have between seven and 10 systems in correctional facilities, and I'd like to bring that to 100 by next year," he said. "There are over 70 federal prisons, 900 state prisons and 3,000 county jails in this country. We plan on hitting that market hard."

Joseph Fontana, a corrections captain at the Sarasota jail, seems amply satisfied with his $6,000 Iriscan system. "It's fast, it's easy and it's more foolproof than fingerprints," said Fontana. "It would be great if other facilities had it so that we could share data."

That kind of talk, however, chills civil libertarians. Big Brother, they warn, would love to get his hands on your eye prints.

"If you have the perfect identifier, it facilitates the sharing of information across databases," said David Banisar, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Employers, for instance, might someday be able to scan your retina to see if you had ever been arrested -- or just visited someone in prison.

"Fingerprints started out strictly as a criminal thing, then they moved into welfare, and now they're used in banks and all kinds of places," cautioned Banisar. "Technology used for law enforcement purposes has a way of suddenly becoming used for all kinds of things."

-- flb (WhyAmI@NotSurprised.net), August 23, 1999

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