DOD surges on biometrics

With war supplemental funding assured, military in Iraq seeks enhanced IT tools

Defense Science Board report on biometrics (.pdf)

The war supplemental bill signed into law by President Bush late last month will flush more than $320 million into Pentagon coffers for biometrics programs. Defense Department officials say the money is urgently needed to integrate a hodgepodge of biometric tools and databases U.S. forces in Iraq use to track extremists.

The military has been using biometrics, which can include fingerprints, iris patterns and DNA information, to control access to U.S. installations in Iraq for several years. The Pentagon accelerated those efforts since late 2004, when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a U.S. base near Mosul, killing more than 20 people.

More recently, troops on the ground have started using biometrics as a law enforcement and forensics tool in stabilization and intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said John Young, DOD’s director of Defense research and engineering.

For example, military officials are employing biometric tools to track how insurgents manufacture and plant improvised explosive devices, he said.

Marines also use biometric information in what they call census operations. During such operations, Marines enter Iraqi homes to collect data about who lives in a village or city block, Robert Carey, the Navy’s chief information officer, said at a recent breakfast sponsored by the Industry Advisory Council. The idea is to build a database of individuals considered regular citizens so officials can quickly identify potential trouble-makers who move in from elsewhere.

But incompatible databases used to record information in various parts of Iraq hamper efforts to create a map of the human terrain, as officials call it.

“I can’t have one database in one area and another database in another area because [the insurgents] move” from place to place, Young said. “The data has to be common.”

Senior DOD leaders designated the director of Defense research and engineering as the principal staff assistant for biometrics last fall, which means Young is in charge of overseeing all DOD biometrics activities. The Army is responsible for developing requirements and spending plans. 

DOD officials say the practice of funding much of the Pentagon’s biometrics activities through supplemental spending bills is to blame for the poorly integrated systems and databases. The absence of a funding process within DOD’s regular budget requests has led the services to create ad hoc tools instead of thinking about enterprise-level systems with standardized data formats, officials say.

“We’re learning as we go,” Young said. “We now have the tools, but the tools are not as well lashed together and optimized as need be.”

Sources say the money from the supplemental bill designated for biometrics should be available within two weeks.

Meanwhile, Carey, who recently returned from service in Iraq as a Navy Reserve officer, said disparate databases create other problems in the collection and storage of information about IED events.

Carey said U.S. troops often use Excel spreadsheets to store data about such incidents. “That’s the same as doing it on pen and paper,” he said. “We need a relational database, where we can analyze and massage the data.”
Board urges greater focus on identity managementThe Defense Science Board released a report in April recommending steps for improving the management of biometrics programs and technologies at the Pentagon. The panelists concluded the military should focus on the larger issue of identity management rather than biometrics alone. The board also recommended:
  • Making the Defense Department’s principal staff assistant for biometrics the functional advocate for biometrics issues as they relate to the Global Information Grid, DOD’s global secure IP network.
  • Deciding promptly on a data architecture for backup and recovery of biometric data in DOD’s inventory.
  • Establishing a program of record for biometrics.
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