The department will run a two-week test in October of commercially sold iris scanners at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, where they will be used on illegal immigrants, said Arun Vemury, program manager at the department's Science and Technology branch.
"The test will help us determine how viable this is for potential (department) use in the future," Vemury said.
Iris scanners are little used, but a new generation of cameras that capture images from 6 feet away instead of a few inches has sparked interest from government agencies and financial firms, said Patrick Grother, a National Institute of Standards and Technology computer scientist. The technology also has sparked objections from the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU lawyer Christopher Calabrese fears that the cameras could be used covertly. "If you can identify any individual at a distance and without their knowledge, you literally allow the physical tracking of a person anywhere there's a camera and access to the Internet," he said.
Iris scans can be quicker than fingerprints. "You can walk up to a wall-mounted box, look at the camera, and that's it," Grother said.
Homeland Security will test cameras that take photos from 3 or 4 feet away, including one that works on people as they walk by, Vemury said.
In 2007, the U.S. military began taking iris scans of thousands of Iraqis to track suspected militants. The technology was used in about 20 U.S. airports from 2005 to 2008 to identify passengers in the Registered Traveler program, who could skip to the front of security lines.
Financial companies hope the scans can stop identity fraud, said Jeff Carter of Global Rainmakers, a New York City firm developing the technology. "Iris is going to completely reshape the fraud environment," he said.