Next: Our Surveillance Society is About to Become a Lot More Intrusive

David Staley David Staley Next: Our Surveillance Society is About to Become a Lot More IntrusiveDeactivated red light cameras sit perched near Fifth Avenue — Photo by Walker Evans.
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Remember Minority Report? There were lots of memorable futuristic gadgets in that film, but the one I remember most clearly was the iris detection tools. Tom Cruise would be walking through a store or some other public place and each sales kiosk he walked by was addressing him by name and personalizing the content of the ads he might be looking at. You might also remember that Cruise’s character has his eyes surgically removed and replaced so he wouldn’t be so easily detected, a grim and desperate act to remain anonymous.

This Minority Report scenario might be a step closer to actually happening. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab Biometrics Center have developed a technology that can detect and recognize a human iris as far away as 40 feet away. The iris, like a fingerprint or the shape of the ear, is unique to each individual, and so iris scanning and recognition is useful for identification purposes.

Iris recognition technology is nothing new, but such systems assume that the person whose eyes are being scanned is cooperating, allowing their iris to be scanned. Think of a key-entry system, where instead of showing a card or a fingerprint, the person’s iris is being scanned. They stand in front of a camera or some such device and allow the scan to occur. You remember the story of Sharbat Gula, who was photographed for the cover of National Geographic in the 1980s? The photographer was able to locate her again nearly two decades later using iris scanning tools and algorithms. I am thinking about the age progression photographs of missing children on the side of milk cartons. Might we be able to locate more missing children this way as well?

The researchers at CyLab are demonstrating that they can scan an iris from someone who is not “cooperating,” which I take to mean that the scan is occurring when the person is not standing at the ready in front of a camera, but is instead having their iris scanned without their knowledge or permission.

Should this technology prove successful and spread widely, our surveillance society just became a lot more intrusive. Iris detection is already being tested at some airports: should the TSA be able to identify passengers by discreetly scanning irises at several yard’s distance, then airport security has just become a bit more invasive. Imagine attending a football game or concert and having your eyes continuously identified and monitored? (Better not rush the field after the game.)

Such a scenario would assume, of course, that scans of all of our irises would be collected and stored in a large database, in the same way that fingerprints are so collected. Criminals, or at least those charged with a crime, will no doubt have to submit to an iris scan along with being fingerprinted. But I wonder how many other people would voluntarily enter their irises into a database?

There is every reason to assume that businesses and other organizations would employ this iris scanning technology. But what happens when this technology becomes consumer grade? In the same way that drone technology is now within reach of anyone with $500, iris scanning technology might also fall into the hands of consumers and deployed around homes. ADT will likely include iris scanning apps as a part of their home security packages. Iris detection software would prove to be a crucial component of the so-called Internet of Things. While the thought of public/government surveillance is chilling enough, private surveillance should also give us pause. Should we start passing laws now about who can use such tools? Might we see more laws like the “right to be forgotten” laws in Europe, where citizens assert their rights not to be identified by anyone, public or private?

What will it mean to live in a society where you can be so easily identified wherever you may walk?

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and a professor of history and design at The Ohio State University. You have also seen him co-hosting TEDxColumbus.

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday September 17 at 6:30 PM at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.)  Our topic for the evening will be “The Challenge of Science Fiction: ‘Where is my flying car and my anti-gravity boots?’”

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