Iris Scanning: The Best Security Tool You Won't Find at U.S. Airports

The best security technology available that would give the TSA an alternative controversial body scanners is already in use worldwide -- just not here in the U.S.

And it won't be here any time soon, either.

Thanks to privacy concerns and infrastructure issues, iris scanners aren't planned for the U.S., a DHS spokesman told Airports and security checkpoints could use the machines, which take an instant picture of the eyeball from a few feet away and compare it against an internal database, in the hunt for terror suspects or illegal immigrants. They're not.

But nothing has stopped the United Arab Emirates, India and Jordan who already use the technology at airports and border crossings, and a major U.S. company will soon announce another major deployment elsewhere in the world.

“In UAE, we've scanned more than 40 million people from all nationalities and caught 600,000 trying to come back over the years by changing their name,” Imad Malhas, the founder of manufacturer IrisGuard, told

India has already enrolled about 600 million people in an initial phase, said Joe O’Carroll, the vice president at the company, which has deployed its scanners in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Jeff Carter, the chief data officer at Hoyes Group, told that iris scanning is the best identification method available. He says a fingerprint only has about 100 points to identify, and even a perfect capture uses only 15 points. False IDs occur in about 1 out of every 10,000 captures.

Facial recognition systems, sometimes used to scan for terror suspects at public events, are even worse: they falsely identify one out of 100 captures. Iris scanning uses 2,048 points of the eye and a false identification occurs only once for every 100 million scans, Carter said.

So why aren't we using this wonder technology in the U.S.? It's not for lack of trying.

Last October, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set up a trial in McAllen, Texas, at a border patrol station using technology developed by Hoyos Group. Chris Ortman, a DHS spokesman, confirmed the test -- and that the U.S. wouldn't be moving forward with it any time soon.

"It was a preliminary test of how the technology performs," Ortman told "We have no specific plans for acquiring or deploying this type of technology at this point."

The “Minority Report” problem
So the ideal border security technology in in use elsewhere, but won't be made available to guard our shores? Is a Steven Spielberg movie partly to blame?

In the sci-fi flick Minority Report, which came out nine months after 9/11, Tom Cruise plays a detective who is scanned as he walks through a shopping mall. To circumvent the biometric readers prevalent in the movie's futuristic world, Cruise replaces his eyeballs.

That's an extreme measure, for sure. But many people,viewing iris scanning as a Big Government program meant to spy on citizens, have a similar response to it.

“Iris scanning seems pretty invasive to me,” says Lisa Malmstrom, a marketing consultant in Minnesota. “I'd be inclined to put my hand on a scanner for fingerprint identification much sooner than I would my eye.”

She's not alone. The American Civil Liberties Union agrees, stating publicly that retina scans are an invasion of privacy because there is no way to control who is scanned in public and when.

Shane MacDougall, a principal at Tactical Intelligence, also called iris scanning arguably the best identification method for use at border crossings, but there are several challenges that will make it difficult to deploy in the U.S. at major airports and borders.

“We would need to deploy [the terminals] across the country in large numbers, reconfigure the software, train people on how to use them, and most importantly build a retina scan database,” he says. Building that database may be the biggest challenge of all.

MacDougall says iris scanning could also have some competition in the next few years: real-time DNA scanning. Just put a drop of saliva in a reader to pass through a checkpoint -- something privacy advocates are sure to howl about as well.

Meanwhile, the prevalence of retina scans will only increase in foreign countries. But will you be scanned as you pass through a U.S. airport anytime soon? Don't count on it.