City of Leon to install mass public iris-scanning

The City of Leon in Mexico, if a report in Fast Company are to be believed, is going ahead with a scheme that goes far further than any other urban surveillance project yet in existence. They are already installing scanners that according to their manufacturers, Global Rainmakers Inc., an until recently secretive company with ties to US military operations, can read the irises of up to 50 people per minute.

Now, we have to be careful here. Gizmondo, as usual has gone way over the top with reports of ‘the end of privacy’ (which, if you believed their stories has already happened as many times as the apocalypse for 7th Day Adventists…) and talk of the ‘entire city’ being covered and ‘real-world’ operations (i.e. in uncontrolled settings). In fact, if you read theĀ  Fast Company report, and indeed the actual description of the products from the company, they are far more limited even in their claims (which are likely to be exaggerated anyway). There is no indication that the iris scanners proposed will work in uncontrolled settings. When the company talk about the scanners working ‘on the fly’, they mean that they will work when someone is basically looking at the scanner or near enough whilst no more than 2 metres away (in the most advanced and expensive model and significantly less for most of them) and moving at no more than 1.5 metres per second (and, again, slower for the lower range devices). All the examples on the company website show ‘pinch points’ being used (walls, fences, gates etc.) to channel those being identified towards the scanner. In other words, they would not necessarily work in wide public streets or squares anyway and certainly not when people were moving freely.

So is this what is being proposed? Well, there are two phases of the partnership with Leon that the company has announced – and we have as yet no word from Leon itself on this. Phase I will cover the settings in which one might expect levels of access control to be high: prisons, police stations etc. Phase II will supposedly cover “mass transit, medical centers and banks, among other [unnammed] public and private locations”. It is also worth noting that the scheme’s enrolment is limited to convicted criminals, with all other enrolment on an entirely voluntary basis.

I am not saying that this is not highly concerning – it is. But we need to be careful of all kinds of things here. First of all, the Fast Company report is pure corporate PR, and the dreams of the CEO of Rainmakers, Jeff Carter (basically, world domination and ‘the end of fraud’ – ha ha ha, as if…) are the same kind of macho bulltoffee that one would expect from any thrusting executive in a newish company in a highly competitive marketplace. Secondly, there’s a whole lot of space here for both technological failure and resistance. The current government Leon may well find that the adverse publicity from this will lose rather than gain them votes and that in itself could see the end of the scheme, or its being limited to Phase I. In addition, without this being part of wider national networks, there may in the end be little real incentive for anyone to enrol voluntarily in this. Why would banks in Leon require this form of identification but not those in Mexico City or Toluca for example? Will the city authorities force everyone who use public transport to undergo an iris scan (which would make the ‘voluntary’ enrolment a sham)? This could all end being as insignificant as the Mexican companies offering RFID implants as a supposed antidote to kidnapping, it could be the start of a seismic shift in the nature of urban space, or it could be a messy mixture.

I hope my colleagues in Mexico are paying attention though – and I will try to keep updated on what’s really going on beyond the corporate PR.