Winthrop adding eye scanners to its security procedures

dworthington@heraldonline.comJuly 10, 2013 

Iris scanners to control access to buildings, residence halls and classrooms at Winthrop University could become commonplace on campus.

School officials say they are one of a few universities installing the technology as a way to improve campus security.

In the four months Winthrop has been evaluating the scanners James Hammond, the school’s vice president for information technology, is convinced they’ve mastered the technology.

The challenge is social acceptance from all users.

So far, he said, students have been quick to understand and embrace the technology.

To activate a scanner, a person looks into a small mirror. The scanner, with voice prompts, gets a person into the right position to compare the scan with information in the school’s computer database.

If there’s a match, you heard an audible click. The process takes less than a second.

The technology is being used at airports, hospitals and military bases. Winthrop is one of the first public and commercial clients for the Iris ID scanners.

Winthrop will start a pilot program for the scanners this fall, using them to control access at the Macfeat Early Childhood Laboratory School.

The pre-school program offered several security challenges, Hammond said.

Foremost is keeping the young children safe and making sure only authorized people pick them up. The list of authorized people can sometimes be quite large when caregivers, grandparents or neighbors are included.

Winthrop started looking at alternatives, seeking a balance between security and convenience.

Hammond said they wanted something that was easy to use and unique. Cost also was a factor.

They considered a fingerprint or palm print system which can register “false positives,” Hammond said.

Research led them to the scanner system which uses 3D technology to take a photo of a person’s iris using 250 data points, 10 times more points of comparison than a fingerprint. The photo is converted into data and encrypted, Hammond said.

A person’s iris photo is not stored in the system. The system does not allow someone to reverse the encrypted data and reconstruct a photo, Hammond said.

There is no current technology capable of “forging” the iris scanners, he said.

Initially, Winthrop officials were concerned the scanners would be too costly. But with a growing number of commercial applications, the per scanner cost is about $2,500.

The cost does not include the time Winthrop spent to write its own programs that connect the scanners to the school’s databases where students and staff information is stored.

The cost also does not include the hardware needed to open a door. Currently, access to about 200 doors on campus is controlled through magnetic or proximity security cards.

Interest in the scanner system quickly expanded to other campus sites, Hammond said. While magnetic card access is a dependable way to control access, cards can be passed from student to student or worse, lost and used by whoever finds them, Hammond said.

A iris scan is a unique identifier, he said.

A scanner also has been installed to control access to the stock trading classroom at Carroll Hall and at the information technology department in the basement of Tillman Hall.

Iris scanners may be added at other university sites, Hammond said.

One of the most likely sites is the West Center, the campus fitness facility where it is inconvenient to carry an ID.

In keeping with Winthrop’s nickname the scanners will be called EagleEye stations.

So far, about 1,200 Winthrop students have had iris scans. Most of them are incoming freshmen who had the scan as part of their orientation and ID processing. They represent about one-fifth of the Winthrop student body.

Hammond said if a large-scale rollout of the scanners is deemed feasible it would not take place until the next budget cycle.

Winthrop’s initial success has attracted national attention. CNN Money has a video on the scanners titled “Scanning your kids eyeballs at school” on its website, money.cnn.com

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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