USA — Biometrics Shows Increasing Promise On, Off Battlefield

WASHINGTON — Con­sid­ered a bat­tle­field curios­i­ty just a few years ago, bio­met­rics has become rec­og­nized as a vital warfight­ing capa­bil­i­ty. Now, defense offi­cials see the same tech­nol­o­gy as a key to help­ing the Defense Depart­ment make its busi­ness prac­tices more effi­cient.

Biometrics has important battlefield applications, Biometrics Automated Tool Set system
Bio­met­rics has impor­tant bat­tle­field appli­ca­tions. In this 2007 pho­to, Army Sgt. Tim­o­thy Box and Cpl. Ben Web­ber use the Bio­met­rics Auto­mat­ed Tool Set sys­tem to hold infor­ma­tion on the vol­un­teers who sign up to become secu­ri­ty guards in Taji, Iraq.
U.S. Air Force pho­to by Senior Air­man Steve Czyz
Click to enlarge

Bio­met­rics – the sci­ence of using unique phys­i­cal and behav­ioral char­ac­ter­is­tics to iden­ti­fy a per­son – has proven to be invalu­able to the warfighter’s tool­box, Myra S. Gray, direc­tor of the Army’s Bio­met­rics Iden­ti­ty Man­age­ment Agency, told Amer­i­can Forces Press Service. 

“Five years ago, it was some­thing very new, and the capa­bil­i­ty was­n’t ful­ly under­stood. It was kind of an add-on to the mis­sion,” she said. “Now it’s an inte­gral part of the mis­sion because peo­ple have seen the val­ue that it brings.” 

Gray’s office, known as the Bio­met­rics Task Force until it was redes­ig­nat­ed in March, is respon­si­ble for cap­i­tal­iz­ing on bio­met­rics tech­nol­o­gy and pro­mot­ing new advances to ben­e­fit the entire Defense Department. 

Fin­ger­prints and oth­er per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fy­ing fea­tures such as a person’s dis­tinct iris, facial, palm and voice fea­tures have become par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful in the intel­li­gence and law enforce­ment are­nas, she said. 

They help com­bat troops tell friends from foes and iden­ti­fy poten­tial ter­ror­ists before it’s too late. They also pro­vide a fool­proof way to put names and faces to insur­gent activ­i­ties and to iden­ti­fy released detainees who have returned to ter­ror­ist activity. 

“You can iden­ti­fy an indi­vid­ual and asso­ciate him with cer­tain actions,” Gray said. “You can fig­ure out who some­one asso­ci­at­ed with and what they have been involved in. You can link events such as an [impro­vised explo­sive device] at one place and a protest at anoth­er. You build a pic­ture of what has gone on.” 

Mean­while, bio­met­rics has become a vital tool in vet­ting peo­ple in the com­bat zone before they’re grant­ed access “inside the wire,” or into secure or sen­si­tive facil­i­ties. “We want to make sure that the peo­ple we per­mit onto our facil­i­ties are not the same peo­ple putting IEDs down,” Gray explained. 

Bio­met­rics also is wide­ly employed beyond the com­bat zone to con­trol access to mil­i­tary facil­i­ties world­wide. For exam­ple, every mil­i­tary mem­ber, fam­i­ly mem­ber and Defense Depart­ment civil­ian employ­ee has a com­mon access iden­ti­fi­ca­tion card that’s embed­ded with their fingerprints. 

But oth­er bio­met­ric tech­nolo­gies are in wide use through­out the mil­i­tary. At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., for exam­ple, the Air Force uses a device that “reads” hand prints to clear vet­er­ans receiv­ing treat­ment at the Vet­er­ans Affairs clin­ic for access to the base hos­pi­tal. At Fort Belvoir, Va., the Army uses iris scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy to pro­vide key­less entry to sen­si­tive areas. And the Navy reg­u­lar­ly uses bio­met­rics equip­ment to con­firm iden­ti­fies as they board for­eign vessels. 

Gray antic­i­pates broad­er use of this capa­bil­i­ty mil­i­tary-wide, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the tech­nol­o­gy becomes increas­ing­ly faster, high­er-qual­i­ty and less obtrusive. 

Among the more promis­ing tech­nolo­gies the Defense Depart­ment is explor­ing are bio­met­ric sys­tems able to scan peo­ple “on the move” with­out requir­ing them to touch any­thing or even stop. Com­mer­cial air­ports see this as a great way to elim­i­nate long back-up lines at secu­ri­ty checkpoints. 

But Gray also rec­og­nizes warfight­ing appli­ca­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly at bor­der cross­ings and oth­er ports of entry where there’s a mass move­ment of peo­ple and insur­gents might try to blend in undetected. 

“Those same ports of entry that legit­i­mate busi­ness peo­ple or fam­i­ly mem­bers are cross­ing are the same places that the insur­gents come across,” she said. “By hav­ing this tech­nol­o­gy, you will have the abil­i­ty to fer­ret out those who are hid­ing amongst the pop­u­lace with­out neg­a­tive­ly impact­ing the population.” 

Mean­while, Gray antic­i­pates broad­er use of bio­met­rics off the bat­tle­field, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the depart­ment acts on Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates’ man­date to improve efficiency. 

“The next big step for­ward in bio­met­rics is def­i­nite­ly going to be in the busi­ness process are­na,” she said. “It is tru­ly a cross-cut­ting capa­bil­i­ty” she said can be applied in “a whole spec­trum of func­tions, from the med­ical field to per­son­nel to finan­cial fields.” 

Bio­met­rics can go a long way in stream­lin­ing record­keep­ing, improv­ing infor­ma­tion-shar­ing and cut­ting out fraud – not only for the Defense Depart­ment, but for the U.S. gov­ern­ment as a whole, she said. 

“We have a lot of ben­e­fits and a lot of ser­vices in which we rely on iden­ti­fy­ing some­one so we can prop­er­ly pro­vide them what they need,” Gray explained. 

She cit­ed just a few ways bio­met­rics would improve the inter-depart­ment shar­ing that sup­ports those ben­e­fits and ser­vices. Bio­met­rics could help the Defense Depart­ment share mil­i­tary med­ical records with the VA, civil­ian employ­ee records with the Office of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment and employ­ee ben­e­fit records with the Social Secu­ri­ty Administration. 

“The big ques­tion is, ‘How do we pull that thread of iden­ti­ty to make sure we are more effi­cient as the U.S. gov­ern­ment in pro­vid­ing ser­vices?’ ” Gray said. “By inte­grat­ing that across the U.S. gov­ern­ment, we can find great efficiency.” 

Under­ly­ing this effort, she empha­sized, is “a com­plete and total focus on pri­va­cy” that ensures all per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion is pro­tect­ed in accor­dance with the Pri­va­cy Act. 

“This is one of the foun­da­tions as we build this sys­tem,” Gray said. “We are build­ing these sys­tems with a strong focus on mak­ing sure we are with­in the guide­lines of the law and pol­i­cy in pro­tect­ing that infor­ma­tion. That is para­mount. We can’t com­pro­mise on that.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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