Looks like law enforcement’s about to get a new tool, and it’s kicking up some privacy controversy. The MORIS iPhone link from Bi2 Technologies is a case-like accessory that snaps onto the handset to enable officers to take biometric scans in the field. Previously this kind of mobile tech was limited to military use, but soon police will be able to scan irises, fingerprints and faces on the spot, and then immediately look up identities and rap sheets for prior arrests, outstanding warrants and other data.

Law enforcement is tickled pink by this technology, since it will undoubtedly accelerate policework. About 40 police forces will soon be getting roughly 1,000 of these units (at about $3,000 a pop). And more could possibly come once Android versions become available.

But here’s the rub: Although the eye and fingerprint scans need to be performed up close — from six inches away and by contact, respectively — MORIS’ facial recognition feature (using the handset’s camera) doesn’t require the same proximity. Officers can snap your pic from up to five feet away, and search your face in the database to pull up relevant data on you.

This is sparking debate over government surveillance and privacy. Physical searches require a warrant or at least reasonable suspicion, but if authorities can scan at will from a distance, does it violate constitutional rights? If so, would cases that rely on this data even stand up in a court of law? And how will they ensure proper conduct around these tools to begin with?

Consider this: MORIS’ information comes from prison databases, but there are plans to incorporate police, FBI and state DMV records in the future. That’s right — the Department of Motor Vehicles. So say you see a cop acting inappropriately. Within moments, he’s noticed you too, whipped out his MORIS and now has your name and address. Scary? You betcha.

I hope they’ll address some of these issues, and soon. The first rollout is coming this September.

Are you concerned about MORIS deployment across police forces and what it could do to civil liberties? Or do you think this is a great step for law enforcement?

[via Wall Street Journal]