ris scans are one of the most popular forms of contemporary biometrics. An infrared light is beamed across the eye. The complex pattern of the iris is mapped, and transformed into a machine-readable code. In effect, an individualized barcode is created. These scans are seen to be particularly reliable because they are unique to the individual, unchanging over time, and difficult to forge or tamper with.

The development of iris scans was prompted by military investment.  In 1993, the Nuclear Defense Agency began to develop and test a prototype unit for iris scanning. The following year, Dr John Daugman was awarded a patent for the algorithm that would enable iris scan recognition, and by 1995 commercial products were available.

The military is one of the largest users of iris scanning, particularly since the introduction of portable scanners. In Afghanistan, the US and NATO forces have scanned over 1.5 million Afghanis, with a particular focus on men of fighting age (15 to 64). In Iraq, the same demographic has been targeted, with over biometric data collected on over 2.2 million people.

On the homefront, iris scans are also proliferating. The military’s Handheld Interagency Identity Detection System (HIIDE) is now being marketed to police across the US. Ina further blurring of the lines, the police databases will be linked up to the FBI, which will in turn be linked to the DOD. Iris scans are also widely used in prisons and correctional facilities. And they are also becoming increasingly available in commercial venues, from access points at hotels and clubs, to easily downloadable apps designed for smart phones.

How can we make sense of this ubiquitous presence of military technology in civilian life? The question is not designed to isolate what is military and what is civilian, or to reassert this distinction, but to understand the common practices of visualization, pre-emption and culpability that shape them. It is also to ask how these technologies render us complicit (see also Gilbert, 2010).

Jonathan Crary’s interrogation of the history of visual practices offers one way in to address these questions (Crary, 1992). He challenges us to examine both representations that the visual practices that create them. Crary cautions that when representation is thought to be at its most accurate, it is most deceptive. He does so by drawing attention to the role of technology in mediating the visual. In the case of iris scans, this could be the handheld devices in the field, or the algorithms that interpret the data, or the databases against which data in coded, all of which are subject to error.

Crary also, however, examines representational practices. It is not just a question of looking at the observed, but understanding the role of the observer, as both one who sees and who is complicit with the practices of visualization. In the case of iris scans, subjects become targets. Their identities are essentialized in terms of their body parts, and detached from their spatial context. At the same time, identities are projected onto the future: iris codes are collected into enormous databases in order to anticipate and pre-empt the future. The speed with which biometrics operate encourage the turn to strong administrative powers exerted over and above the slow time of deliberative democracy and human rights.

Iris scans are one small example of how accepted military targeting, information and governance is becoming an accepted model for civilian life. In 2014 the FBI will open its new $328 million Biometrics Technology Center at its campus in Clarksburg, West Virginia. On site is also the Department of Defense’s Biometrics Task Force. The propinquity is designed to better enable collaboration across military and police forces, with respect to technological development, operations, and databases. Warfare is being turned inwards, so that the distinctions between military and civilian are more and more blurred, even as the technology champions accuracy and transparency. 


Crary J (1992) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century. Boston: The MIT Press.
Gilbert E (2010) Eye to Eye: Biometrics, Biopower and the Body Politic. In: F McDonald, K Dodds, and R Hughes (ed) Observant States: Geopolitics and Visual Culture. IB Tauris.