Yesterday, the NYPD began photographing and scanning prisoners' irises as they pass through Central Booking, as part of a $500,000 program that the department expects to expand citywide. The new high-tech identification program was ostensibly created to keep prisoners from slipping away as they move through the court system—in two embarrassing incidents earlier this year, two prisoners escaped detention by posing as another perp at arraignment. But civil libertarians and defense attorneys were caught off-guard by the new policy, which the NYPD implemented without any legislative oversight. Spokesman Paul Browne says there's a simple reason for that.
"Our legal review determined that these are photographs and should be treated the same as mug shots, which are destroyed when arrests are sealed," Browne tells the Times. According to the article, the technology "uses high-resolution images to identify unique patterns in the iris, the colored part of the eye. It is considered less intrusive than retinal scanning, which looks at patterns in the blood vessels in the back of the eye and can reveal information about a person’s health, raising privacy concerns." A hand-held scanning device will now confirm a prisoner’s identity when the suspect is presented in court.
Naturally, Donna Lieberman at the NYCLU isn't having it: "It’s really distressing that the Police Department is once again undertaking a new regime of personal data collection without any public discourse." And Steven Banks at the Legal Aid Society says, "This is an unnecessary process. It’s unauthorized by the statutes and of questionable legality at best. The statutes specifically authorize collecting fingerprints. There has been great legislative debate about the extent to which DNA evidence can be collected, and it is limited to certain types of cases. So the idea that the Police Department can forge ahead and use a totally new technology without any statutory authorization is certainly suspect."
Over the summer, the state legislature ordered the NYPD to erase its electronic database of innocent individuals who wind up on the receiving end of the controversial "stop and frisk" policy. In response, the department simply moved to a non-electronic database.