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How the Defense Department might institutionalize war-time biometrics

Iraq and Afghanistan have been biometrics proving grounds, but what's next?

By , Network World
September 23, 2009 11:18 AM ET

Network World - TAMPA -- When it comes to biometrics, the U.S. Department. of Defense has gained vast experience during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the military has captured millions of fingerprints, facial images and iris scans in order to identify and collect details about terrorists and dangerous insurgents.

The changing face of biometrics

Special Operations Forces (SOF) working in combat situations give real meaning to the term "mission-critical" computing: Suspects are tracked down based on fingerprints found on exploded bomb fragments, for instance, that are matched against a database in the United States in less than three minutes using satellite communications.

But what's next for the Department of Defense's biometrics program?

Officials from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and SOF, along with the Department of Defense's Biometrics Task Force (which guards the foundation biometrics database in West Virginia), acknowledged this week that the Defense Department lacks the common architecture it needs to create a more unified long-term biometrics capability but is working towards one based on some form of federated identity management.

The Department of Defense is also eager to expand its biometrics efforts into new areas that include DNA, as well as what's called "multi-modal biometrics" that fuse various types, like fingerprint or iris, in order to obtain a more perfect match on subjects.

The science of biometrics "strips away the ambiguity of a person's identity," said Dr. Myra Gray, director of the Biometrics Task Force. In "high-target tracking," biometrics is a tool that will "deny anonymity to adversaries" and is now being used in Iraq and Afghanistan on detainees and suspected terrorists, Gray told attendees at the Biometric Consortium Conference going on in Tampa this week.

"We have 3.5 million records stored" on 2.3 million total identities, Gray said. From that database, which is maintained by the Biometrics Task Force, there have been a total of 1.4 million matches made, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, by warfighters equipped with rugged biometrics and communications kits. Biometrics data from suspects has been accumulated in various ways, including fingerprints found on shards of explosive devices.

"Our match rate is 31% of the people we touch, we match against," said Craig Archer, whose job title at the U.S. Special Operations Command is Identity Superiority Manager.

Special Operations units active in 72 countries use biometrics kits in the field that can link to Department of Defense and FBI databases to track down "high-value individuals" and "persons of interest." Speaking at the conference, Archer said a total of 18,994 matches have been made on 60,620 submissions to check fingerprints and other biometric data, leading to the capture of entire terrorist networks. "It's thanks to biometrics," he said.

Physical and political obstacles

Today the military's biometrics collection and suspect-tracking efforts are shifting from Iraq, where the U.S. role is changing as troops depart, to Afghanistan, where the mountainous terrain makes satellite communications more difficult. The problem posed by the Afghan mountain ranges can be mitigated by building extensive communications relays, Archer said, adding he's not at liberty to say much about that.

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