The Eyes Have It
What is Iris Recognition?

Iris recognition is a biometric modality that compares the unique characteristics and patterns of the colored part of the eye to verify and authenticate an individual’s identity. Similar to fingerprint matching, iris recognition is more accurate and doesn’t require physical contact, offering more use cases, including the ability to operate at further distances than fingerprints or palm prints.

Using an algorithm, systems use automated mathematical pattern recognition to verify the identity of an individual based on one or both eyes. The iris is complex, unique, and stable, meaning it doesn’t change with age the way the face or even fingerprints can.

Biometric technology relies on the ability to encode the uniqueness of individuals that can then be used for matching. Iris recognition is superior to most other modalities due to their inherent quality of uniqueness, resulting in highly accurate matching with almost no false positives. Even among identical twins, whose faces may not be unique enough to distinguish using facial recognition, irises provide individual patterns that are easily distinguishable.

Up until now, iris recognition has been less adopted than fingerprint recognition or face, but due to its exceptional accuracy rate, we can expect it to continue to grow in popularity, particularly by governments. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly more common for immigration control around the world.

How Does Iris Recognition Work?

Iris recognition works by capturing an image and encoding the unique properties (approximately 240 features per iris) to create a biometric template for searching and matching. Unlike facial recognition, though, iris recognition requires a specialized digital camera that uses invisible infrared light to capture a high-contrast image of the iris, picking up the unique patterns that are imperceptible to the unaided eye. These cameras can be handheld or mounted for a broad range of use cases.

How Does Iris Recognition Compare to Other Modalities?

Iris recognition is extremely reliable and highly accurate, making it the method of choice for law enforcement and border control. However, due to its requirements for specific hardware, unlike other modalities, such as face and voice recognition, it’s much less commonly deployed for consumer-facing use cases. Like most technology, though, advances in the industry are making it more affordable and accessible to consumers via mobile devices, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note7.


Compared to fingerprints, iris recognition is more stable, as the iris doesn’t wear away the same way a fingerprint can over time, particularly if you have a hobby or job that causes friction to the fingertips, such as surfing. However, using fingerprints as a tool for identifying individuals is broadly accepted by most of the public, whereas other modalities, particularly touchless forms, like the iris, can be a harder sell to privacy advocates.


Similar to iris recognition, facial recognition doesn’t require physical contact. But it doesn’t have nearly the accuracy of iris recognition. A better application for facial recognition is the ability to exclude individuals from a search to reduce the pool of potential hits, making it a good candidate for multi-modal solutions. When searching large populations, reducing the pool of potential suspects by eliminating certain individuals first, then running biometric matching on the remaining individuals greatly speeds up the process, when timing is critical. This is ideal for live monitoring of large crowds against a watchlist.

Pros of Iris Recognition

Speed and Accuracy

Once enrolled, iris recognition is one of the fastest biometric matching modalities on the market, with the ability to handle very large populations with speed. It is also one of the most accurate with one of the lowest rates of false acceptance and false rejection rates. The false rejection rate is a fraction of fingerprints and the false acceptance rate is half what fingerprints are.

Nearly Impossible to Forge

Iris recognition is nearly impossible to forge or spoof with current technology. This modality is widely deployed around the world with no reports of breaches by places using iris recognition for security purposes. Due to the accuracy of iris recognition, the threshold can be set very low, protecting against potential fraud.


The iris doesn’t degrade with age and is well-protected by the eyelid, cornea, and aqueous humor, making changes as a result of injury much less common than other modalities.


Because the cameras use infrared light, iris scanners can be used in nearly any setting, including in the dark.


Iris recognition doesn’t require physical contact with the sensor for scanning, making it more hygienic and less intrusive than fingerprints and other touch biometrics.

Cons of Iris Recognition


At current market rates, iris scanners are more expensive than other biometric devices, making iris recognition cost-prohibitive for many. But as technology advances and new manufacturers come on the market, prices could come down.

Capture Quality

Although iris recognition is one of the most accurate forms of biometric identification, there are issues that will impact the quality of the scan, including movement on the part of the individual, reflection, particularly with glasses and contact lenses, and distance to the individual. All of these can be overcome, but they are a factor when making your biometric modality choices.

Public Acceptance

The biggest challenge is public acceptance of iris recognition due to privacy concerns. As with any biometric modality, this is an objection that will need to be overcome through education and policies regarding acquiring and storing such personal data.

Where is the Iris Recognition Market Going?

Contactless scanning is the future of biometrics, with iris recognition poised to take the lead role. But getting the public to embrace biometrics is the biggest hurdle facing the industry, followed closely by the costs of the scanning hardware. Both can be overcome with time and the right approach. But even with these challenges, iris recognition is growing in adoption by government agencies with enterprises likely to follow. In fact, the FBI has recently added iris recognition to the Next Generation Identification (NGI) initiative, the largest repository of biometric and criminal information in the world, and is encouraging local law enforcement agencies to adopt the modality as well.

Imageware’s Approach to Iris Recognition

Imageware takes the same approach to iris recognition as we do to other biometric modalities. We maintain a vendor-neutral philosophy when it comes to hardware and algorithms using only the top NIST-rated algorithms. Our biometric solutions can support any iris scanner device and any vendor’s algorithm, including hardware and algorithms from different vendors, and seamlessly integrate them. This provides our customers with a custom solution at a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) price.

Next Steps

Contact for more information, to schedule a demo, or to discuss how we can help you implement an iris recognition solution.