(Houston Chronicle (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Dec. 29--GALVESTON -- Technology developed to keep track of prisoners by scanning their irises became available Thursday to identify missing children or elderly people afflicted with Alzheimer's disease in Galveston County.
The Galveston County Sheriff's Department is the first sheriff's department in Texas and the 47th nationwide to join the Children's Identification Database, or CHILD Project.
The addition of Galveston County is part of an effort to image the irises of 5 million children into a nationwide database over the next few years, said Robert Melley, vice president and CEO of Biometric Intelligence & Identification.
"We have 1,800 sheriff's departments representing 46 states who have committed to participating," Melley said.
So far, the CHILD Project is in 26 states after more than 18 months, said Biometric President Sean Mullin. Children with an iris scan in the national database cannot be identified unless they are in a county that has the CHILD Project equipment, he said.
The system can scan an eye and match an iris in 3 to 5 seconds after comparing it with stored images in a national database, Mullin said.
Mullin and Galveston County Sheriff Gean Leonard appeared together at a news conference at the Galveston County Justice Center to explain how the technology will assist in identifying missing children.
"We hope others will follow our lead in Texas," Leonard said in announcing the department's participation.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that, on average, more than 2,000 children are reported missing every day across the nation.
Leonard said he hopes eventually to scan the irises of all 71,000 in the county. He hoped that groups such as parent-teacher organizations, churches and senior care centers would invite his officers to events where scans can be made.
To be scanned, a child sits in front of a portable scanner. The portable system is in a black plastic box about the size of a briefcase. When opened, a spherical camera sits on top of the lid and a second camera with a wide, horizontal lens pops up to eye level.
The box is connected to a laptop computer where a name, phone number and address are entered. A voice from the machine directs the child to move his or her head forward, back or to the side, as needed.
The lower camera senses when the head is in the proper position and automatically takes four photos of the iris while the upper camera takes one of the face.
A missing child who is found sits in front of the camera, which scans the iris and flashes the face shot and contact information on screen in seconds if it is matched to the database.
Mullin said an iris has 235 identifying characteristics -- flecks and spots -- that are unchanging after the age of 1. Kevin O'Reilly, spokesman for Mullin's company, said there was one chance in about 200 million of an incorrect match.
Biometric chose Galveston County after interviewing officials in several other Texas sheriff's departments, including Harris County, because of Leonard's enthusiasm and the county's demographics, Mullin said
As a tourist center, the county is a destination for runaways and has a large population of senior citizens, he said.
"I'd like to make sure that Sheriff Leonard is doing a great job, then we'll talk to Harris County," Mullin said.
Leonard said the $35,000 cost of two imaging machines would come from private donations. He said a Texas City company has donated $5,000 and he met with several other potential donors at lunch.
The first machine cost $25,000 and each new machine costs an additional $10,000, Leonard said. He said he hoped that the police departments in the county eventually would acquire their own equipment.
Eventually, Leonard wants to buy a separate system for the county jail to use during bookings. The system would prevent the wrong prisoner from being released, he said.
Mullin said a similar system has been used in prisons for about seven years. He adapted it for use in the CHILD Project at the request of sheriffs in Massachusetts and Las Vegas, he said.
Leonard acknowledged that some parents might see the iris scans as an invasion of privacy but said he is certain doubters could be won over.
O'Reilly said the CHILD Project overcame privacy objections by programming the database to remove an iris scan automatically once a child turns 18, unless he or she is still listed as missing.
He also said that only enough information to find the parents, or the family in the case of an elderly person, would be entered. Personal information, such as Social Security numbers, would not be used, he said.
Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle
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