Fast Company

Iris Scanners Create the Most Secure City in the World. Welcome, Big Brother

We've all seen and obsessively referenced Minority Report, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's dystopian future, where the public is tracked everywhere they go, from shopping malls to work to mass transit to the privacy of their own homes. The technology is here. I've seen it myself. It's seen me, too, and scanned my irises.

Biometrics R&D firm Global Rainmakers Inc. (GRI) announced today that it is rolling out its iris scanning technology to create what it calls "the most secure city in the world." In a partnership with Leon -- one of the largest cities in Mexico, with a population of more than a million -- GRI will fill the city with eye-scanners. That will help law enforcement revolutionize the way we live -- not to mention marketers.

"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," says Jeff Carter, CDO of Global Rainmakers. Before coming to GRI, Carter headed a think tank partnership between Bank of America, Harvard, and MIT. "Every person, place, and thing on this planet will be connected [to the iris system] within the next 10 years," he says.

Leon is the first step. To implement the system, the city is creating a database of irises. Criminals will automatically be enrolled, their irises scanned once convicted. Law-abiding citizens will have the option to opt-in.

When these residents catch a train or bus, or take out money from an ATM, they will scan their irises, rather than swiping a metro or bank card. Police officers will monitor these scans and track the movements of watch-listed individuals. "Fraud, which is a $50 billion problem, will be completely eradicated," says Carter. Not even the "dead eyeballs" seen in Minority Report could trick the system, he says. "If you've been convicted of a crime, in essence, this will act as a digital scarlet letter. If you're a known shoplifter, for example, you won't be able to go into a store without being flagged. For others, boarding a plane will be impossible."

GRI's scanning devices are currently shipping to the city, where integration will begin with law enforcement facilities, security check-points, police stations, and detention areas. This first phase will cost less than $5 million. Phase II, which will roll out in the next three years, will focus more on commercial enterprises. Scanners will be placed in mass transit, medical centers and banks, among other public and private locations.

The devices range from large-scale scanners like the Hbox (shown in the airport-security prototype above), which can snap up to 50 people per minute in motion, to smaller scanners like the EyeSwipe and EyeSwipe Mini, which can capture the irises of between 15 to 30 people per minute. 

I tested these devices at GRI's R&D facilities in New York City last week. It took less than a second for my irises to be scanned and registered in the company's database. Every time I went through the scanners after that--even when running through (because everybody runs, right, Tom Cruise?) my eyes were scanned and identified correctly. (You can see me getting scanned on the Hbox in the video below. "Welcome Austin," the robotic voice chimes.)

For such a Big Brother-esque system, why would any law-abiding resident ever volunteer to scan their irises into a public database, and sacrifice their privacy? GRI hopes that the immediate value the system creates will alleviate any concern. "There's a lot of convenience to this--you'll have nothing to carry except your eyes," says Carter, claiming that consumers will no longer be carded at bars and liquor stores. And he has a warning for those thinking of opting out: "When you get masses of people opting-in, opting out does not help. Opting out actually puts more of a flag on you than just being part of the system. We believe everyone will opt-in."

This vision of the future eerily matches Minority Report, and GRI knows it. "Minority Report is one possible outcome," admits Carter. "I don't think that's our company's aim, but I think what we're going to see is an enviroment well beyond what you see in that movie--minus the precogs, of course."

When I asked Carter whether he felt the film was intended as a dystopian view of the future of privacy, he pointed out that much of our private life is already tracked by telecoms and banks, not to mention Facebook. "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," he says. "We're not talking about anything different here--just a system that's good for all of us."

One potential benefit? Carter believes the system could be used to intermittently scan truck drivers on highways to make sure they haven't been on the road for too long.

GRI also predicts that iris scanners will help marketers. "Digital signage," for example, could enable advertisers to track behavior and emotion. "In ten years, you may just have one sensor that is literally able to identify hundreds of people in motion at a distance and determine their geo-location and their intent--you'll be able to see how many eyeballs looked at a billboard," Carter says. "You can start to track from the point a person is browsing on Google and finds something they want to purchase, to the point they cross the threshold in a Target or Walmart and actually make the purchase. You start to see the entire life cycle of marketing."

So will we live the future under iris scanners and constant Big Brother monitoring? According to Carter, eye scanners will soon be so cost-effective--between $50-$100 each--that in the not-too-distant future we'll have "billions and billions of sensors" across the globe.

Goodbye 2010. Hello 1984.

UPDATE: Q&A with Jeff Carter on how Iris Scanners will rule the future of advertising, shopping and security.

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212 Comments

  • Eme Guta

    3 things:
    1. I don't use Facebook, I use cash except when it's a large purchase,
    and I try to use as much privacy protection on the computer as possible.
    This is NOT "just a system that's good for all of us" for me. It's not a
    small step up even. It's a
    we're-screwing-over-your-methods-of-staying-private giant step up.
    And I have a good reason for staying as private as possible- former stalker. What's going to happen in 10 years?

    2. What about people who don't have eyes, or can't have them scanned for whatever reason? Will they be unable to still do stuff? Given a iris-card of some sort? Require an implant?
    And for those who have eyes but have photophobia (sensitivity to light to the nth degree), will their eyes be constantly irritated and hurt? Will they eventually go blind?

    3. What about people who use no or low tech? Amish people, for example. Will they be screwed over, too?

  • Jordan Nielsen

    "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security, deserves neither and will lose both."
    -Benjamin Franklin

  • davepula

    They claim EVERYONE on Earth will be "in the system" in 10 years ?!?!? If THAT is not the "mark of the beast" than WHAT in the H*LL is ?!?!? This is ABSOLUTELY Orwell '84 POLICE STATE stuff !!!!!!!!!!!! If this becomes a reality, there will be NO PLACE to escape . We will ALL be TRACKED and TRACED everywhere we go. Mao Tse Dung, Joseph Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Fidel Castro, EVERY dictator of the 20th century would just LOVE this Big Brother technology !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • jake quinn

    this is it the end... scary it will start down in Mexico and work it's way to the U.S. NOT GOOD.....

  • anna grate

    irise scannners?when did they come up with that?jk.how come people think eye scanners will make a difference?trust me,it wont.

  • George Bush

    A Must read for all, especially those who don't mind seeing something like this being implemented:

    The Eternal Value of Privacy
    http://www.wired.com/politics/...

    Two important snippets:

    "Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." Watch someone long enough, and you'll find something to arrest -- or just blackmail -- with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies -- whoever they happen to be at the time.

    Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance."

    ---

    "Too many wrongly characterize the debate as "security versus privacy." The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that's why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide."

  • Sany Boble

    Hello, has anyone renewed their driver licience lately, and was asked to take their glasses off, for a picture.

  • Kenneth M Kite

    Security and Privacy
    I don't know how to make this any more clear; My security is infinitely more important than anyone's privacy, even yours!

    Ken

  • linda anthony

    The more invasion of privacy, the less secure you are. A strong leadership and government is for the protection of the individual and privacy, not the other way around. It doesn't pretend to protect you by taking away your privacy. Tyranny and abuse of power protects no one. Tyranny and invasion of privacy are sides of the same coin. Security and the rights of privacy work together to protect our liberties.

  • George Bush

    And I don't know how to make this even more clear either

    "Too many wrongly characterize the debate as "security versus privacy." The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that's why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide."

    Read More http://www.wired.com/politics/...

  • Kenneth M Kite


    I don't know how to make this any more clear; My security is infinitely more important than anyone's privacy, even yours!

    Ken

  • Lailoken

    Prisons are some of the most secure places society has to offer. Would you live there? Also, many assume that they would have a large amount of control when it comes to their security. Also, consider that privacy is WORTH the cost of security? What is security worth if you can't ever be unobserved or alone? Would you ALWAYS have someone watching you to make sure your safe?

  • David Grebow

    I am amazed at how frightened we have become about a future that does not yet exist except upon the dystopian drawing board of a company who stands to make money and a city in Mexico where people are afraid to go out in the daytime let alone after dark.

    We are still in control ... we make the future unfold in ways we believe are good for all of us. We enabled the passage of the Patriot Act - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - airport security - cameras on city street corners and all the rest. No one had taken away anything from you that you have not allowed to be taken.

    Don't want eye scanners? You won't see them. Need to have them to make you more secure? They will appear where you collectively believe they are needed. City - State- Federal government tries to force it down your retinal scanner? Use the court system, block their invasive asses and then throw the bums out.

    Personally what I want to keep private I make analog and what I know will become public I allow it to become digital. I have no issue with my eyeballs being databased if it enhances my ability to be recognized where" "I need to be seem as "I". It also works for me to lock other people out of what I do not want their prying eyeballs to see.

    My condolences to those of you who are feeling so powerless ...

  • Matt osullivan

    "Unless you are really doing something bad, you're not raising any eyebrows."

    Sure, but who gets to decide what 'really bad' is, and how do they arrive at that information? In my opinion, those who are not alarmed by this technology have too much unquestioning faith in government and security organizations to be 'on your side'. Much as I loathe to draw comparisons to Nazi Germany, I will: who's to say that this kind of technology won't be used to, say, track and round up illegal aliens and put them in internment camps? What about those who 'harbor' them? Stranger things have happened to a country, seemingly overnight. McCarthyism, anyone? Not exactly ancient history.

    The point's been made that so much of our personal info already exists in databases and the situation isn't new, and that's right, but that doesn't make it ok. It is becoming more normalized that the individual's every move is tracked and potentially examined for patterns of behavior that algorithms can analyze and flag, and that's a dangerous trend that threatens the dynamic of societal evolution and change. The symbolism of in-your-face pervasive identification would have a very real effect on the psychology of the populous. That environment is not condusive to freedom of expression.

    Everything is 'fine' with a government that can analyze your every move until that government has motives you don't agree with. Nevermind the rogue elements or hackers that can, do and will examine the data.

  • Tom Hadeed

    Minority Report, HAH, how about Revelation. Im not particulary religious, but The Beast comes to mind with the forehead marking , sounds similar.

  • Samuel Lee

    Impressive, but recognizing the problem is one thing. Security isn't as simple as eye scanners. Iris fraud will occur. If not from the biological side, somewhere between or behind the seam of HCI.

  • naturalmom08

    GRI also predicts that iris scanners will help marketers. "Digital signage," for example, could enable advertisers to track behavior and emotion.

    This is wonderful!!! I mean, what better way to be flooded with constant advertising!! Can you imagine the kids? Even the kids who are limited to their TV viewing would be flooded with advertisements. How fun...so now, whenever you feel down and out...you can get flooded with Big Pharma ads about their next awesome anti-depressant and if you show concern about the side effects, it'll automatically have an "expert" scientist to dispute the dangers to you.

    Why, this is Wall-E and Minority Report combined! Big, Fat Lazy Americans getting bombarded by constant advertisements and having their irises scanned to boot! Nice. *roll eyes*

  • Ryan Lober

    Sunglasses don't affect the system, so I don't think Ray Ban stock will be shooting up anytime soon.

    I don't really understand all this fear-mongering, you guys need to chill out and remember that Minority Report was just a movie and not a foretelling. The government and banks know more about you than you do, and are probably better at keeping it a secret than you are. You carry an ID along with all of your credit cards and some money everyday, essentially anything and everything someone could use to steal your identity. You carry a passport when you travel, no one seems to mind that, yet it contains quite a bit of information about you. As far as advertisements go, we have already shown that we can limit what can be shown to us (ie subliminal advertisements) and if things get too invasive they can be trimmed back. In addition, people always act like the government is going to invade their privacy but frankly, they don't give two sh**s. Unless you are really doing something bad, you're not raising any eyebrows.

    In an age where identity theft is an everyday occurrence, I would love a more secure method of proving that I am myself.