DOD mulls future of troubled automated biometric ID system

Customer testing of the Defense Department’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) will decide the future development of what has become a crucial element of the military’s global identity management and battlefield support systems. 

However, past tests of an upgraded version ABIS, which is also a mainstay of biometrics data sharing partnerships with the departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security, have not fared well, and the course of development of the system remains unclear, according to the Army’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency. 

ABIS allows biometric data gathered by U.S. military forces in theater to be searched for matches in DOD’s ABIS database and across the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint ID System (IAFIS). 

The biometric program began life over a decade ago, when the Army’s Battle Command Battle Laboratory at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in 1999 developed what it called the Biometrics Automated Toolset (BAT), to collect and compare fingerprints as well as iris and facial images.

The system was upgraded and expanded over the years until ABIS version 1.0 was fielded in January 2009 to support the collection, matching and sharing of biometrics data collected during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. It was also used to process and store data for access systems used at U.S. installations outside the United States.

Version 1.0 includes palms prints as one of its biometric features, along with the BAT basics. It’s also able to combine partial matches of various biometrics to increase the chances of identification at up to 30 times faster than any previous version of the system. 

ABIS 1.2, if it passes muster, should be able to process some 30,000 daily database transactions, twice as many as version 1.0, and hold over 18 millions records. It’s also intended to be an architecture that will enable future improvements and increased throughputs.

However, according to the 2013 annual report by the DOD’s Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, there have been four failed attempts to deploy ABIS 1.2, each resulting in roll-back decisions. The latest came after tests in August 2013.

Among other things, the report said, “U.S. Special Operations Command documented 31 high-priority deficiencies and U.S. Central Command documented 11 additional high-priority deficiencies that affected mission accomplishment due to deficiencies in the ABIS 1.2 baseline.” 

Users during the tests also noted “suitability deficiencies,” including an inability to locate data and an increase in the percentage of files that needed manual review.

Current customer tests, to be conducted though March, will be on a system for which the deficiencies noted in 2013 have been addressed and corrected according to the Army’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency (BIMA). However, it also said that “there is no current plan to seek a full deployment decision immediately after the customer test” and that any future decision will be driven on the basis of what comes out of these and future tests. 

What will happen if that testing fails could depend on how well the old technology stands up to the rigors of current requirements. In its 2013 annual report, the OT&E director’s office said that, if ABIS 1.2 is not likely to successfully complete operational testing by May 2014, then ABIS 1.0 should be considered as the project’s program of record. 

However, that would require the older system being upgraded from its current Windows XP dependency, given that Microsoft is ending support for that operating system in April this year, along with other hardware and software that are reaching their end-of-life. It would also require development of external interfaces to current systems and customers.

Consequently, the future development of the DOD biometrics capability is unclear. In terms of the future capability of the ABIS system, the BIMA said senior Army leadership is working on an “analysis of alternatives” that will produce adjustments to previously discussed acquisition schedules, but that “no request for proposals (will be) forthcoming in the immediate term.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Sun, Jul 13, 2014

People bring up problems with the people at BIMA and that certainly was an issue. But the larger problem is with the ASD PSA. Ultimately the PSA is responsible for managing this program for the Army. The other aspect not mentioned is how USSOCOM would horde data to be submitted right before a test so they could upload as many files as possible during the customer test in an attempt to crash the system. USSOCOM wants the test to fail so they can move forward with their own ABIS and the money from BIMA could be diverted to them. This is really about kingdom building and protecting your own program than it is about fixing a critical piece of technology for our troops.

Sun, Mar 30, 2014

Posted on "At you will find the ABIS related section of the DOT&E FY2013 Annual Report outlining some of the issues."

Tue, Mar 25, 2014

Not sure why the source Army Biometrics Identity Management Activity did not state that they are the root cause of the current challenges of the future system. I believe it should be clearly known by all that their inability to document proper requirements is why millions of dollars are being spent to correct a decade of their continued mistakes. Who is holding them accountable and when will it start? When will they baseline the current system so that no additional changes can be made and the requirements will not continue to grow? Despite, the several reorganization attempts of the Activity, their ineptness continues unchecked.

Sun, Mar 9, 2014 Bob Marotta

Good article, but would be interesting to know what organization has been working on the software upgrade and why they are still being allowed to continue after the extensive history of failure. Where is the accountability?

Sat, Mar 8, 2014

Interesting support of the article in the comments. I wonder if those commentors have any comments on the fact that the entire management staff of their activity has been removed or ran away. If you want to write an article on fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption look into the last 6 years of the biometrics identity management activity.

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