No one understands the importance of keeping children safe better than Gean Leonard.
As sheriff of Galveston County, it's Leonard's responsibility to protect Galveston's youth population of 71,000. As such, one of the sheriff's most vital roles is finding children when they go missing.
Traditional methods of finding missing children include fingerprinting and photo identifying. But with recent advances, Galveston County now offers to scan children's irises, plug the iris images into a national database, and use the information as an assured way of matching a child's identity.
"In an ever-shrinking, faster moving and more dangerous world, and specifically in our society, one in which the safety of children is so highly valued, I believe the use of this technology should be clear," said Leonard, who's been sheriff for seven years and involved with the sheriff's department for nearly 35.
The program was unveiled in late December 2006, and Galveston County is the first in Texas to introduce the new technology, which comes from Massachusetts-based Biometric Intelligence and Identification (BI2) Technologies.
The system, called the Children's Identification and Location Database (CHILD) Project, uses Panasonic's BM-ET330 Iris Reader, which captures an image of the iris by taking a high-speed digital photo.
Leonard said children, with parental consent, can voluntarily sign up and participate in the free service.
"Typically schools, churches, scout groups and the like will arrange for us to visit with them," he said, adding that the service will also be available at community events.
Because the iris reader snaps a digital image, recording a child's iris takes only 3 to 5 seconds, and does not touch the eye, Leonard said, adding that the equipment can be set up and used in less than 30 minutes.
Once the pictures are taken, the data is entered into a national database. When a potentially missing child is found, his or her eye can be scanned and the image matched against the database. The child's eyes can only be scanned by a CHILD Project agency.
"Iris recognition technology utilizes the most unique and accurate biometric available on the human body. This speed and accuracy, combined with the relatively low cost of the system, makes it an excellent addition to existing child and senior identification programs," said Kevin O'Reilly, BI2 vice president and director of communications.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 2,000 U.S. children under the age of 18 are reported missing every day, and almost 800,000 go missing annually. Because of the scope of the problem, the CHILD Project has piqued a lot of interest in Texas and across the nation.
O'Reilly said 15 other agencies in Texas have expressed interest in the system, including Harris County and the Pasadena Police Department.
As of February, sheriff's departments in 26 states had begun using the CHILD Project, and more than 1,400 departments had indicated interest, O'Reilly said. Even so, the database is still limited because a missing person can only be identified using an iris scan in jurisdictions that use the system. Hampshire County, Mass., was the first county to sign on with the CHILD Project in May 2005.
"It is extremely important to get as many people registered into the system as possible," O'Reilly said. "The system will be successful in identifying local children who may wander or are lost, but to work on a national level, for people who travel across state or county lines, we are attempting to implement the system on a nationwide basis."
Benefits and Drawbacks
The CHILD Project is maintained by the Nation's Missing Children Organization (NMCO). The information collected from irises is stored in a secure database controlled by the NMCO in Phoenix.
The CHILD Project's biometric machine can be used to register people into other databases, such as the Inmate Recognition and Identification System, Sex Offender Registry and Identification System and the Senior Safety Net. Those databases work in much the same way the CHILD system does, except the procedure is mandatory for incarcerated individuals.
Leonard said he hopes for widespread adoption of these programs, especially the Senior Safety Net.
"Our population is aging," Leonard said, "and with that comes a larger number of persons who may suffer from Alzheimer's or dementia."
The county paid $35,000 for the system. One scanner and the software costs $25,000, and a second scanner is an additional $10,000. The equipment necessary to run the operation includes: the CHILD Project software, an iris recognition enrollment camera, a digital camera, one laptop computer and licensing dues, O'Reilly said, adding that there are no annual costs for support or maintenance.
Eye scanning is similar to the older method of fingerprinting, but it is not intended to completely replace fingerprints, according to O'Reilly. The two can work together, and Galveston County plans to continue using both forms of identification.
"The two technologies complement each other," Leonard said. "As a practical matter, the biometric scan technology is much faster and easier on the enrollment side. Ideally a person could be enrolled both ways."
One advantage of eye scanning is file size. The iris code file is only 688 bytes, whereas most live scan digital images are around 1.5 megabytes. "So, from a storage and retrieval perspective," O'Reilly said, "iris is much more cost-effective while being around 12 times more accurate."
One drawback of iris scanning, O'Reilly noted, is its lack of forensic value. Perpetrators can't leave scans of their irises at a crime scene the way a fingerprint or DNA sample could be matched if found.
Eyeing the Future
Leonard doesn't see privacy issues as a big concern but will work with parents to address any question they may have. O'Reilly said when a child turns 18, his or her information is removed from the CHILD Project, unless he or she is missing.
"The most important aspect of the system is that the information can only be retrieved when the person who has been enrolled looks into the camera, which will allow the system to conduct a search of the database to match the iris code with the registration information," O'Reilly said. "We have also been careful to only include information that would reunite a missing person with their caregivers, such as name, address, age, emergency contact name and number. We do not seek Social Security or driver's license numbers."
O'Reilly said BI2's goal is to scan the irises of 5 million children over the next few years.
"The company is very much focused on seeing the system implemented in as many counties as possible across the nation," he said. "We are very encouraged with the amount of interest that has been generated over the past two years and will continue to work with sheriffs to help identify funding mechanisms to purchase the system."
Leonard said he hopes all children in Galveston County will to take part.
"As the database grows across the nation," he said, "the possibility of finding such missing persons becomes greater."