When Tom Cruise had to break into police headquarters in Minority Report, the futuristic crime thriller, he got past the iris scanners with ease: He just swapped out his eyeballs.
CIA agents may find that just a little beyond the call of duty. But meanwhile, they've got to come up with something else: The increasing deployment of iris scanners and biometric passports at worldwide airports, hotels and business headquarters, designed to catch terrorists and criminals, are playing havoc with operations that require CIA spies to travel under false identities.
Busy spy crossroads such as Dubai, Jordan, India and many E.U. points of entry are employing iris scanners to link eyeballs irrevocably to a particular name. Likewise, the increasing use of biometric passports, which are embedded with microchips containing a person's face, sex, fingerprints, date and place of birth, and other personal data, are increasingly replacing the old paper ones. For a clandestine field operative, flying under a false name could be a one-way ticket to a headquarters desk, since they're irrevocably chained to whatever name and passport they used.
"If you go to one of those countries under an alias, you can't go again under another name," explains a career spook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an agency consultant. "So it's a one-time thing - one and done. The biometric data on your passport, and maybe your iris, too, has been linked forever to whatever name was on your passport the first time. You can't show up again under a different name with the same data."
The issue is exceedingly sensitive to agency operatives and intelligence officials, past and present. "I think you have finally found a topic I can't talk about," said Charles Faddis, a CIA operations officer who retired in 2008.
"I can't help you with this," added a former intelligence agency chief. "I do think this is a significant issue with great implications for the safety and security of our people, so I recommend you not publish anything on this. You can do a lot of harm and no good."