MICHELE NORRIS, host: Across the U.S., beginning this fall, police will have a new weapon holstered to their belts. They say it will give them a huge advantage in getting the bad guys. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, what police are celebrating as revolutionary, civil libertarians are calling scary.
TOVIA SMITH: It is a weapon you might never even notice on an officer's belt, and you still might not realize its power even if he pointed it right in front of your face...
SEAN MULLIN: It's probably about four to five inches from your eye.
SMITH: ...and began to shoot.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SMITH: And that's it.
MULLIN: That's it.
SMITH: An ordinary iPhone connected to this new device becomes a biometric scanner that officers can point and shoot at a suspect's irises and instantly blow his alias to bits.
MULLIN: In a matter of seconds, it says here's who it is, and here's who it is not.
SMITH: Sean Mullin, CEO of BI2 Technologies, that developed the device, says a suspect's photo is held just momentarily until the device reports whether his unique iris matches any in a database of mostly bad guys.
MULLIN: And look what it says on the screen, Tovia. No match found.
SMITH: I have a clean record.
MULLIN: That's very good.
SMITH: So far.
PAUL BABEU: This is a game changer for law enforcement.
SMITH: That's Sherriff Paul Babeu from Pinal County, Arizona, who has signed up to buy 75 of the $3,000 devices that can also take facial scans and fingerprints.
BABEU: I pushed people aside to be first in line to get these. It's worth weight in gold.
SMITH: You might call it the ultimate killer app. Babeu says guys wanted for murder and other serious crimes often slip thru officers' grasps simply by using a fake ID. Even if an officer brings a suspect in for fingerprinting, checking for a match often takes too long.
BABEU: Sometimes I would arrest people and they might have a false document, but I don't find out until next day when there's an alert on my email that says, hey, guess what? It was really this other person, but they've already seen judge a when they're released.
SMITH: While the iris scanning device is instant, the downside is it's only as good as its database. And right now, the iris database is small but growing.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
SMITH: At the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Massachusetts...
DOUG RIDEOUT: Got a belt?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nope.
RIDEOUT: OK. Right thru the metal detector.
SMITH: Every suspect or convict who gets booked has to submit to an iris scan. That not only helps build the database, but as Lieutenant Doug Rideout says it's also helping to bust inmates, like one guy who came in recently using an alias.
RIDEOUT: We do the iris scan and it pops up his picture. We turn the screen around and say, this is you, right? And he still denied it. Nope, that's not me. But we got you, you know?
SMITH: While the device has left law enforcement almost giddy with excitement, others, like Jay Stanley of the ACLU, worry the devices will be used to violate the privacy of law abiding citizens in a kind of facial profiling.
JAY STANLEY: What we don't want is because the technology is so easy to use that the police begin using left and right and, you know, on all kinds of people who just strike them as looking funny or out of place based on the faintest whiff of a suspicion.
SMITH: Stanley also worries about who will manage and access the data. But George Washington University Law School Professor John Banzhaf says police may be the least of your worries. The technology to match faces can be used from afar and is already so widely available it's on Facebook. Banzhaf says you could easily be stalked by anyone from an ex-boyfriend to a department store.
JOHN BANZHAF: I don't know anybody who'd want to walk around with, in fact, a computer cookie on their face so that everywhere you go you can be photographed and then somebody can track you. That's frightening.
SMITH: Until now, law enforcement's use of facial recognition has been controlled more by technological limitations than legal ones. But things are changing fast, and experts say, for example, police may soon be able to scan even your irises from a distance without you knowing. Should that require a warrant? Sherriff Joseph McDonald in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, says no.
JOSEPH MCDONALD: Officers aren't going to be walking around with these machines stopping people on the street who happen to be walking by without reason to stop these people. We've got 240 years of constitutional law that isn't going away.
SMITH: There is perhaps no one who understands the great potential of facial recognition technology better than the folks here at the very prison where former mob boss Whitey Bulger is now locked up after 16 years of hiding in what turns out to have been plain sight. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MELISSA BLOCK, host: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues in a moment.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.