The National Security agency and the U.S. Intelligence community just got a whole lot happier, though the CIA may not be as pleased. The magazine Wired recently reported this month that spies and military personnel will soon be able to scan an individual’s eyes, face, thumbs and voice—at a distance—using commercially available smartphones. These augmented phones will be made available for government personnel in the military and intelligence community.
According to Wired, this new tool will be able to scan faces at up to two meters away and automatically photograph the person; scan irises from one meter away even in bright sunlight and record their voice from within a typical distance to a phone. Thumbprints will still need to be scanned against the phone’s glass however. The applications for this tool are many, especially concerning the protection of America’s borders and military posts overseas, or verifying foreign enemies, foreign assets, or other apparently friendly individuals around the world.
Again the NSA should be very happy, especially since they have a reputation for having an insatiable desire for collecting data, even on American citizens. For normal American citizens this may not be encouraging news, particularly in a post-9/11, surveillance-happy world. For many people this could end up being not only invasive, but a gross violation of civil liberties and privacy. The NSA already stores copious amounts of data on American citizens, gleaned from numerous devices such as public cameras or their own cell phones, and then stores this information at massive data centers. Now they may have biometric data as well. The idea of a drone having an individual’s biometric information and using that to track the person down is unsettling to say the least.
Furthermore there are problems this technology creates for America’s own deep-undercover intelligence agents. What the United States is able to use can and will often end up becoming available to hostile nations, such as Iran. Biometric scanning often goes hand in hand with linked databases, which is technology that nations hostile to the U.S. often have as well.
Imagine a CIA case officer trying to enter a nation with a “real” passport/visa (though this itself may be fraudulent or real), and then swaps it with another passport so he can move freely. Now if this person were to be scanned out of a group—perhaps at a hotel, car rental, or just off the street—he would then most likely have his ID checked and scanned. Government officials are always looking for visa overstays and while his real visa shows him entering the country, this new “fake” visa may not show him as having ever entered the country. This spy now has a major problem. Needless to say the CIA may need to start working on solid ways to counter this problem if agents are confronted with it in the field, where an already dangerous situation can be made much worse.