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Marines using biometrics to ID friends, foes in Afghanistan

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the sequence of events surrounding the introduction of the Biometric Identification System for Access program.

Agencies have dreamed for years about deploying biometrics to the field. You can check out these photos of someone who resembles a much younger looking version of me leading a team of GCN Lab reviewers as we tested out a whole suite of biometric products trying to break into government service as far back as 2003. Those products had drawbacks, though, including vulnerabilities to hacking (especially those with software-based middleware), high numbers of false negatives and clunky form factors. 

Biometrics is  a Defense Department success story with a long history, according to Maggi Patton, PMD Chief at U.S. Army, PEO EIS, PM Installation Information Infrastructure - Communications and Capabilities. The Army, the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command have been using a variety of field biometric systems since before 9/11, she said.

The Army's Biometrics Automated Toolset, which captures fingerprints, iris patterns and facial images and compares them to an internal watch list, was field tested in Kosovo and then sent to Iraq with a
Marine Corps unit in 2003. Since then a variety of biometrics collection devices have been used in the field.

The Marine Corps just announced it is successfully deploying biometric scanners to Afghanistan that use a combination of facial, thumb and iris scanners to identify insurgents. 

“The BESD [Biometric Enrollment and Screening Device] provides Marines the ability to identify friendly or neutral individuals’ true identities while denying the enemy anonymity,” Ilich Bello, Force Protection Systems Team senior program analyst, says in the Marines’ announcement. “It supports the biometric enterprise requirement to capture forensic-quality rolled fingerprints, and meets Department of Defense and FBI standards.”

The soldiers in the field are using a portable device to record the identities of people they meet and have enrolled over 19,000 persons of interest, including 300 who were placed on a watch list. Scans are compared against an internal biometric database to identify individuals encountered on the battlefield, the Marines said.

Sending biometrics out on patrol is a natural extension of the Army's Biometric Identification System for Access program started in 2005, in response to a suicide bomber that infiltrated a high-security U.S. military installation in Mosul, Iraq, in December 2004. The Army later developed a biometric base access control system to screen day workers, and that system won a GCN Award in 2010 after its successful deployment.

Deploying biometrics into the desert is even harder than in a typical climate. Silex Technology came across this years ago when trying to figure out why users of its biometric fingerprint scanners in Colorado were getting much worse results than those in California or Washington, D.C. It was because drier skin was hampering the scans, necessitating the creation of the Silex 51 scanner that could look beyond the first fingerprint layer and read the moister skin beneath, which earned it a good grade in lab testing. Presumably, any fingerprint scanner deployed to Iraq would have to make use of the deeper scan, since the humidity there is so low and the heat so high.

Even today, with many of the kinks worked out for biometric devices, there are always ways people come up with to bypass or trick biometrics, so we can never totally rely on them. A few years back, an artist figured out how to use World War I-era "dazzle paint" to trick scanners. Dazzle paint’s effectiveness at camouflaging warships might have been dubious back in the day, but it worked well against modern facial scanners.

With the new portable scanners deployed to I, II and III Marine Expeditionary Forces, reports are that the program is working well, and helping to make soldier's jobs a little safer. That's great news, and we can only hope that the program continues and evolves. Scanners and the science of biometrics have come a long way in a short time, but still likely have a little ways to go.

Posted by John Breeden II on Aug 22, 2013 at 6:17 AM


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