How the Defense Department might institutionalize war-time biometrics

By , Network World |  Security, biometrics

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.

Another problem, say many close to the effort, is that sharing biometric-related information over the Defense Department's segmented networks – which are separated for security classification purposes -- sometimes means data ends up being shared via storage media that's handed around or mailed.

In addition, it has not been possible to get U.S. allies in Europe on board with this type of strenuous biometric collection, which has been worked out through bi-lateral agreements with Iraq and Afghanistan during the conflict.

"It's complicated everywhere," said Thomas Dee, the director of the Defense Biometrics Office of the Secretary of Defense, Acquisition, Technology & Logistics. "The U.S. has strict privacy rules, as do countries like Germany and Italy." Policy for use of biometrics is worked out based on local law and agreements, but the U.S. military is so convinced of the merit of biometrics, it finds itself going to battle to argue for it when allies look on it askance.

Lt. Col. Thomas Pratt of the U.S. Marine Corps, the military operations branch chief on the Biometrics Task Force, acknowledged that allies are not usually comfortable with the U.S. practice of "harvesting biometrics." But he perseveres in trying to convince them that "if you're a bad actor in Afghanistan, you'll be a bad actor in Germany." But the word "biometrics," and its suggestion of data related to body parts, retains a negative ring for many, Pratt said.

Still the Department of Defense is eager to "institutionalize" its use of biometric technologies for the long-term. The Defense Department estimates it spent about $1.5 billion on biometrics over the last few years, and is hoping for about $500 million for biometrics and forensics in the next year or so. The Department of Defense acquisitions so far have been done in war-time haste, irritating many biometrics vendors that crave more comprehensive standards.

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