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Biometrics help U.S. soldiers fight terrorism

U.S. government also using biometrics to identify employees, contractors and foreign visitors

By , Network World
September 27, 2008 05:27 PM ET

Network World - TAMPA, FLA. -- A biometrics "jumpkit" is helping American soldiers in Iraq to identify dangerous persons by immediately comparing detainees’ fingerprints against an Army database in the United States, using a satellite link for speedy analysis.


See slideshow: The changing face of biometrics


"When we roll with a target we need quick, rapid identification of who we have," said Konrad Trautman, director of intelligence at the U.S. Special Operations Command, describing how the biometrics kits kits can help zero in on gangs making improvised explosive devices (IED) in Iraq.

These terrorist groups leave their fingerprints everywhere, including on scraps of already exploded devices, said Trautman, who described the process at the Biometric Consortium Conference held last week in Tampa.

The U.S. military in Iraq over the last two years has amassed a large database of fingerprints and photos that can be instantly accessed using the biometrics jumpkit. Soldiers submit a Web-based inquiry with a detainee’s fingerprint scan to the Army’s Biometrics Fusion Center via a small Inmarsat satellite antenna link that’s part of the kit, and in about 15 minutes can find out if the fingerprint matches a prior entry.

In situations that involve high-value targets, interrogations, or door-to-door searches, “for us to come in with knowledge that there has been bomb-making sets the tone for the discussion,” Trautman said.

Soldiers have made about 28,000 biometric submissions over the past two years, resulting in 1,722 positive matches for individuals linked to IEDs, which has greatly helped reduce the bomb-making violence in Iraq, Trautman said.

“If I find a fingerprint off a mortar fin that landed, I can probably figure out who did it,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Pratt from the U.S. Central Command. Entire groups of bomb-makers are being identified through biometrics, Pratt said.

In addition to collecting fingerprints, the military is storing iris and DNA captures from the most dangerous individuals and using that information to link people to terrorist events.

But it hasn’t always worked that way, said U.S. military officials at the conference.

“Eight years ago we were writing a number across the forehead of a detainee with a pen,” said Dr. Myra Gray, director of the Defense Department's Biometrics Task Force, which centrally organizes the military’s efforts to use biometrics technologies. “Terrorists have no borders. For us to be effective, we have to break down barriers and have effective data sharing between agencies.”

She said the use of biometrics has directly led to 379 of the most dangerous terrorists being “taken off the street.”

The Defense Department's arduous collection of biometrics from Iraqi detainees (both the innocent and the guilty) is being carried out under an agreement with the Iraqi government, but military officials acknowledge the collection methods “are more permissive than what you’d find in this country,” Pratt said.

Biometrics era

The soldier’s biometrics jumpkits are just one example of how the U.S. government has embraced the science of collecting fingerprint, face, iris and other biometrics to identify individuals since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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