The All-Seeing Eye
ATMs are being rigged with retinal scanners

The windows of the soul are now the keys to your bank account, as spy tech takes one step further into the mainstream. It's called biometrics and, of course, it's all for your own good.

The "iris scan" is a peace dividend if ever there was one -- a mixture of academic research, military application, and good old American financial sense. Often shown in the movies (when they read Bond's eyeballs to prove who he is), the pattern-recognition technology was invented as an academic exercise by Cambridge University professor Dr. John Daughman -- but it took two New Jersey companies to turn a dime on it.

First IriScan developed the idea as a digital hall pass, then sold it on to the Sensar Corporation who figured out how to fit it in a cash machine. The first ATM to use the Sensar Iris Identification System was publicly unveiled by Bank United of Houston on May 13, 1999.

The clever part is that the access control software, as Sensar calls it, is married to a "targeting mechanism" -- a location device that was previously found mounted on the bellies of bombers to zero-in on targets. According to spokesperson David Shane, that's the Sensar difference: "With other iris scan technologies the person has to put their eye close to the eye piece. With our product the camera finds you."

Shane believes that convenience makes the SIIS a clear winner: "Now when you go to the bank you don't have to prove who you are." But although Shane doesn't expect the all-seeing eye to become the industry standard for "a couple of years," it is already available for home banking in a PC version that requires nothing fancier than a standard PC camera to eyeball who you are.

The technology isn't without its critics -- or competitors. TrueFace (from Princeton, N.J.'s Miros Corporation) is a line of access-control software that relies on facial recognition. According to indignant founder Dr. Michael Kuperstein, TrueFace has already been in use at over one hundred check-cashing centers and is clearly the superior product.

"Our program needs only eighty pixels to make an identification, which it could do at a distance of up to one hundred feet," says Kuperstein. He also notes that, unlike TrueFace, iris scans have a four- to five-percent rejection rate for people who wear colored contact lenses, have droopy eyelids or, interestingly enough, are Asian.

Kuperstein believes that a system that mistakenly rejects that many customers is bad for business. "If you were a bank, would you rather let a few [of the wrong] people through every now and then, or simply flat-out reject anyone if they don't match? ... Banks can't afford to anger their customers."

Robert Phoenix also writes for MONDO 2000 when he's not busy working toward gum control.

See also...
... by Robert Phoenix
... in the Scope section
... from August 26, 1999