Your eyes will open everything—your office, your bank account, your smartphone. Apple’s fingerprint reader in the new iPhone captured the popular imagination last fall, but eye scanning—specifically, iris scanning—is poised to become prevalent. As a universal biometric ID, your iris will replace passcodes and access cards, offering convenience and reducing fraud. "It’s as unique as a fingerprint and much harder to try and spoof," says Marios Savvides, director of the CyLab Biometrics Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
Until now, the technology has been more popular internationally, often as part of immigration and security protocol. In India, a far bigger effort is underway. As part of a national ID program, the entire population—1.2 billion citizens—is submitting biometric information, creating the world’s largest such database. The government is vowing that the program will facilitate social services to millions in poverty who, without proper identification, have been largely invisible and underserved.
The U.S. has lagged, but experiments are multiplying quickly as the cost has dropped and the scanning experience has improved. A handful of airports now whisk passengers through security who are carrying a biometric-rich card made by the company Clear. Eye scanners are finding their way onto more corporate campuses, replacing key card systems, such as at Google’s data centers. The FBI is testing the technology in federal prisons; colleges in dorms; even elementary schools on buses. That system, developed by Blinkspot, ensures that a child is on the right bus. Parents can track their child’s progress on a corresponding mobile app and receive a confirmation photo by email or text.
The trials are bound to surge with the arrival of AOptix’s new mobile app. With a handy device, it turns any iPhone into a scanner. Overall, the $6 billion global biometrics market, largely driven by military investment since September 11, is projected to more than double by 2015 to an estimated $14 billion.
While some people balk at touching a public sensor, the latest eye scanners eliminate the need for close proximity. The sensor that Carnegie Mellon recently built for the Department of Defense scans someone’s iris from as far away as 32 feet. For soldiers, or law enforcement, the distance provides safety. For consumers, says Savvides, "it makes the technology unobtrusive," removing a big hurdle to widespread adoption. You could walk in a store, get scanned without noticing, and receive an instant email or text with customized discounts or product suggestions based on your shopping history, the next evolutionary step after loyalty cards and Foursquare.
But a national biometric ID card still faces major challenges here. In August, a coalition of privacy groups fought a Senate-proposed biometric Social Security card. In addition to invading privacy, the groups wrote to the president, "It would also require the creation of a bureaucracy that combines the worst elements of the Transportation Security Administration and state Motor Vehicle Departments." In other words, this is no place for wide-eyed optimism.v