DOD brings biometrics to bases in Iraq

Army team enhances BISA system for checking day workers

2010 GCN Awards The importance of effective base security has been appreciated since long before Greek soldiers hid inside the giant horse they left as a gift at the gates of Troy.

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However, technology keeps changing the definition of effective.

After a suicide bomber infiltrated a high-security U.S. military installation in Mosul, Iraq, killing 13 soldiers and eight others in a dining hall, the deputy secretary of Defense ordered the development and deployment of a biometric base access control system.

In months, the Biometric Identification System for Access was serving bases in Iraq. BISA recorded a variety of biometrics of full-time, non-U.S. applicants for work and helped in distributing smart-card ID badges to those who were granted access.

Dept of Army BISA

Standing left to right, Weldon Fergason, Regina Chambers, Aric Naternicola, J. Friel; seated clockwise, Margaret Patton, Charles Mahon, Eric Pavlick, Iman Elbakry, Michael Fritz, Mary Fitzgerald, T.J. Harris, Christopher Stone.


BISA relied on nonportable devices for collecting biometrics and issuing badges. As a result, the system was not well suited to accommodate large flows of day workers who were on premises for short times. Instead, day workers received nonbiometric badges and were accompanied by an armed escort at all times.

That low-tech, inefficient system spawned the need for a portable biometric system. The Army wanted a system that bases could deploy wherever they needed to enroll and screen people and rapidly compare information with Defense Department and FBI databases. The Army’s Office of Project Manager DOD Biometrics, under the command of Col. Theodore Jennings, was tasked with developing and deploying a solution.

It didn’t take long.

“The first inkling of a day worker solution probably started cropping up in 2007,” said Maggi Patton, the office’s product director for tactical biometric systems. “It took us until 2008 to get the funding, and then it took us into 2009 to be able to start field testing.”

The team's solution minimized costs by taking advantage of the existing BISA system, including its commercial digital cameras, iris cameras, fingerprint scanners, rugged laptops and back-end servers. The team then modified a commercial handheld biometric identification device to include a smart-card reader and software to support the new BISA Day Worker system's functionality. The new biometric ID device also includes an iris scanner, which facilitates in-the-field enrollment and confirmation.

If fitting all that functionality — along with enough storage space for data storing and processing — was a technological problem, members of the team say designing the system was, relatively speaking, the easy part.

“From the technology perspective, you’re going to have a lot of smart engineers to figure out how to do it,” Jennings said. “When you get it out in the hands of users — again, in the size of an army of over 500,000 people — you’ve got to make sure you can train those people. This system is not in the Army’s training process."

"So Patton's team had the training pieces, as well as the fielding and the equipping parts,” Jennings said.

Patton said there were a few kinks to work out in the initial deployment.

“When we did finally get to the field, people had done some stopgap measures in the meantime,” she said. Victory Base, where Patton’s team first deployed BISA DW, was a large base that had developed workarounds. “Lesson No. 1: Don’t start at the busiest base where they’ve done something that’s making them happy. Change is not usually well received unless somebody is really hungry.”

Taking that lesson to heart, Patton’s team deployed BISA DW at a base on the outskirts of Baghdad that didn’t have biometric enrollment and screening. “So they were very happy to receive something,” Patton said. “We perfected the system there and then went to several other bases.”

The BISA DW system will return to Victory Base, Patton said.

“We’re taking a full biometric enrollment for each of the day workers identical to how we’re doing the enrollment for the regular full-time workers,” Patton noted. “The DW solution supports full 10 fingerprints as well as palm prints. And the high quality of the prints means that the enrollments can be compared to not only DOD databases but to FBI files as well,” Patton said.

“And, yes, we have some people trying to get on our bases in Iraq who have anything from drunk driving to unpaid tickets here — and murderers and rapists,” Patton said. “So it is worthwhile that we check all the records against the FBI.”

In addition, the BISA DW system takes two iris scans and five facial photos.

The full effect of BISA DW is difficult to measure accurately, but by all accounts, the improvements are obvious. “Many other locations weren’t even bothering to enroll these individuals,” Patton noted. “They simply were screening them against an existing watch list, usually based on an iris. So if we encountered the person previously and if we had derogatory information about them and if we had an iris scan in their file, we were going to find them and stop them from entering our base."

Because of the quality of the expanded biometric collection that the BISA DW program offers, U.S. forces are increasingly able to identify people from the military’s database of latent prints taken from, say, a bomb casing, Patton said. “We’re matching people against latents on a daily basis,” she said.

“It’s an important part of the process.”

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