In 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) updated its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) to store iris images. The iris is the colored part of the eye that surrounds the pupil. Irises can be photographed, converted to a bit pattern, saved in a database, and used to uniquely identify an individual similar to a fingerprint.

In 2013, the FBI launched the Iris Pilot, a trial program that used partner agencies to collect iris images from people arrested, booked into jails and prisons, or processed for probation and parole. The FBI Iris Pilot collected 1.8 million iris images before converting into the Next Generation Identification Iris Service (NGI-IS) in late 2020.

The FBI describes the NGI-IS as a national iris repository that partner agencies use to store and search iris images for identification and investigatory purposes. These agencies include local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as agencies involved with prosecution, probation, parole, and corrections. Iris image data added to the database by one agency can be accessed by all other participating agencies through the NGI-IS search feature.

When the FBI began the Iris Pilot program in 2013, its mission was the mass collection of iris images belonging to people arrested for or convicted of crimes. A decade later, the FBI’s mission has expanded to include the collection of iris images of people who have never passed through the criminal justice system. An FBI Privacy Impact Assessment refers to these iris images as “not collected pursuant to the evidentiary threshold (i.e. arrest, a subsequent criminal proceeding, incarceration, or post-trial release)” and notes that they are collected from “federal and foreign partners” with the majority “obtained from non-U.S. persons.”

Note: Iris images failing to meet the above noted “evidentiary threshold” are not stored in the NGI-IS database. Therefore, FBI partner law enforcement agencies using NGI-IS cannot access these images while conducting searches.

It is unknown which federal and foreign partners share iris images with the FBI and under what circumstances those iris images are collected. Some countries collect iris images for use as general identification for their citizens. For example, “[i]ris data from over one billion people has been collected for the Aadhaar Unique Identity program in India.” Looking to the future, one unnamed European country plans to install IDEMIA iris cameras along roads to collect iris photos of drivers from a distance (see diagram below).

Foreign countries sharing their citizens’ iris image data with US law enforcement is not new. Mexico shares its iris image database with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Back on the domestic front, FBI Special Agent Scott Rago, who heads the Biometric Services Section in the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS), envisions a future when the NGI-IS database becomes so vast that “a police officer on a traffic stop using the mobile iris camera capability” can say to a motorist, “‘Look at me,’ and capture the iris. They can run the information and get a response.”

The NGI-IS supports two different types of iris image searches: (1) identification searches, and (2) investigative searches. “Identification searches are performed for the authorized agencies when the iris image submitted is of high quality (i.e. the image is captured by an iris camera in a controlled setting).” Use of iris identification searches include, but are not limited to, “correctional facilities to monitor the entry, exit, and release of prisoners” and “automatic check-in of parolees…”

“Investigative searches are performed when lesser quality ‘unknown’ iris images are submitted for searching against the ‘known’ repository of iris images. An investigative search is designed to return up to 50 match candidates…. Investigative responses include a caveat that cautions the criminal justice agency that users should not rely solely on the investigative search responses as the impetus for any law enforcement action and true identities must be independently verified.”

Since the launch of the FBI’s NGI-IS, participation by local and state law enforcement continues to grow. For example, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation is in the process of having IDEMIA convert its Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) to an Automated Biometric Information System (ABIS), with completion calendared for December 2023. With the new ABIS, the Kansas Criminal Justice community will be able to “[t]ake advantage of new biometric modalities offered by the FBI (such as iris matching, facial recognition to mug shots).”