Biometrics in the War on Terror


Dec 18, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on December 18, 2005.

With wars waged far from the traditional battlefield and with terrorists committed to the mass murder of civilians, the U.S. government needs to be able to rapidly identify terrorists and others who pose a national security threat so it can answer the age-old question: Is this person a friend or foe?

To respond to the asymmetric nature and global mobility of terrorists today, U.S. authorities must have the tools to determine a person's previously used identities and past activities — particularly as they relate to terrorism and criminal acts — while there is still time to thwart an attack. One important tool in this effort is biometrics, which are automated methods to recognize a person based on physical or behavioral characteristics.

Terrorists can get fake passports and fake drivers licenses, can change their names, and can use disguises to change the way they look. But they can't change their fingerprints, and can't easily evade other biometric methods of identification.

In trying to identify terrorists and others who threaten national security, the United States government and state and local law enforcement agencies are relying on biometrics more than ever before.

In addition to linking a person quickly to his or her previously used identities, biometrics can help authorities determine if a person they encounter has been previously arrested in the United States or other countries, refused entry into the United States, or somehow linked to terrorist or criminal activity.

Some U.S. government agencies have made exceptional progress with biometric technologies.

For example, since 1999 the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System has grown into a searchable database consisting of the fingerprints of approximately 49 million people. The people in this database have been arrested in the United States for a felony or serious misdemeanor, or are suspected terrorists. The database processes approximately 50,000 fingerprint searches per day with remarkable accuracy, and has become a mainstay of federal, state and local law enforcement.

In 2004, in response to the insurgency in Iraq, the Department of Defense established a computerized Automated Biometric Identification System. Built to be compatible with the FBI system, the Defense Department biometric system consists of fingerprints and mug shots taken from detainees and others who have come to the military's attention in places like Iraq. The Department of Homeland Security also takes biometric data from foreigners coming to the U.S.

More progress could be made if the U.S. government championed greater biometric use and collaboration among federal agencies and international partners. National security and law enforcement agencies need to collect common biometric data that meet common standards, process the data so it is shared and searched against relevant databases, and ensure prompt notification of data matches that identify terrorists and other individuals posing threats.

For example, fingerprints that the military obtains from a detainee in Iraq could be searched against all relevant U.S. databases maintained by the FBI, Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security and laws enforcement agencies, as well as the fingerprint databases of America's allies. Detainees could be held in custody until these searches are completed.

Latent fingerprints recovered from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and from terrorist sites could be searched against the same databases. So could fingerprints of people arrested in the United States, as well as fingerprints of applicants for U.S. visas, to determine if they had previously been enemy combatants.

But the U.S. government is not yet searching data effectively because of legal and policy concerns, bureaucratic inertia, and resource constraints. To address these concerns, the government could establish a federal biometric information management system to enable processing, searching and sharing of biometric data collected by various governmental collectors.

The federal biometric system would need to ensure interoperability, data integrity and seamless processing of the data. Operationally, the system would need to ensure that biometric data is collected to meet a standard used by many agencies, processed quickly, searched accurately, and used to notify the appropriate agencies of matches.

Membership in the system would need to include stakeholders from the federal, state, tribal and local governments. Foreign governments may also need to be included.

The system would also need a policy and oversight structure to protect civil liberties and guard against abuse. The FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board — whose membership consists of federal, state and local government law enforcement agencies — is a starting point for a biometric information management system. The United States could also forge ahead at the international level to ensure that biometric data is shared appropriately.

In the face of an unyielding threat from terrorists who use the latest technology, America needs new tools to identify friend from foe. Exploiting the power of biometrics can keep America and its allies safer.

Outside View © 2005 United Press International

John D. Woodward, Jr. is the associate director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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