Iris Scans: Keeping an Eye on Sex Offenders

Authorities have gained a new high-tech tool to keep track of sex offenders: the Sex Offender Registry and Identification System (SORIS), a biometric database that stores images of sex offenders' irises. The system will be introduced this week in Mecklenburg County, N.C., the first to adopt the technology. Deputies take a photo of an offender's irises--a unique human identifier--and enter it into a laptop that connects wirelessly to a national database managed by BI2 Technologies, which makes the equipment. As the database grows, law enforcement will be able to scan the irises of a suspected criminal and check for a match. The response is instantaneous--quicker than trolling through regular databases of sex-offender names. The main goal is to identify the tens of thousands of sex offenders nationally who fail to register in the county where they reside, as required by law. "We're going to track down every sex offender," says Mecklenburg Sheriff Jim Pendergraph.

For SORIS to succeed, of course, counties nationwide will have to sign up. Though the technology was unveiled only a few weeks ago, many have already expressed interest, says BI2 CEO Sean Mullin. Pendergraph plans to photograph the irises of every sex offender in the county, either visiting them at home or calling them into the station (he says they can't refuse). And once his deputies get soon-to-be-offered PDA devices that connect to the system, they plan to scan the irises of people they pull over and suspect of having committed a crime. All of which dismays civil-liberties advocates. "The potential privacy invasion ... makes me nervous," says Richard Wright, a member of the Massachusetts ACLU board. He also doubts whether it will even be effective. "If a sex offender wants to commit a crime they will commit a crime," he says. "It doesn't matter what technology police put together."