Biometrics on the Front Lines

When it comes to the counterinsurgency (COIN) directive of protecting the populace by separating the insurgents from the people, there is no better technology to achieve this end state than biometrics. Coalition forces can use biometrics to separate friendly locals in their Areas of Responsibility (AORs) from seasonal insurgents and to conclusively identify known Taliban. Unfortunately, although this technology is highly conducive to achieving COIN directives, and is one of the most effective methods of removing IED makers from the battle space, it remains one of the most underutilized systems in Afghanistan.

Although there are several biometric systems in theater, most Coalition forces use the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) device and the Biometric Automated Toolset (BAT) to collect an enrollee’s iris, fingerprints and photograph. The HIIDE is a battery-operated handheld device that is utilized in a tactical environment, whereas the BAT requires fixed power and is likely to be found at an Entry Control Point (ECP) or Port of Entry (POE). These systems are issued and maintained throughout theater by Task Force Biometrics (TFB), a forward element which is overseen by Program Manager Biometrics (PMB) located in the United States.

After an individual’s biometrics are collected, they are sent to the Advanced Biometric Identification System (ABIS) database in the United States where they are analyzed against a database of latent fingerprints that have been taken from IEDs, weapons, documents or other items that originated from suspected Taliban sources. If an enrollment matches a latent print, the identity of the individual will be linked to that match and the individual will be added to the Watch List. The Watch List is updated on a weekly basis and has five different alert levels, with Level One being Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL) vetted targets, such as known IED makers, who can be detained immediately. The other Watch List levels are used to identify personnel who have been banned from ISAF facilities or are otherwise of interest. Once an individual is on the Watch List, Coalition forces can track his movement through the battle space by using tracking reports.

While the design of the data architecture makes biometrics very conducive to CIED and other intelligence-related operations, its untapped potential in Afghanistan lies in its role as a non-kinetic weapons system that can potentially restrict insurgent freedom of movement and deprive them of safe haven and hiding in plain site among the peaceful. In addition to storing the Watch List, both BATs and HIIDEs are capable of storing a local database consisting solely of personnel enrolled within a unit’s AOR. The BAT is excellent for keeping track of local nationals who come on and off a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or who belong to partnered units, but the HIIDE can allow Soldiers in the field to determine with a ten second iris scan whether or not a local national belongs in the area. Culturally speaking, Afghans love having their pictures taken and having a picture of themselves – the card, not an officially recognized identification card, still provides a sense of identity that the average Afghan citizen does not possess. BATs and HIIDEs can be used to print identification cards for local nationals that can be tailored by units for specific villages or districts within their AORs. These identification cards have proven to be very popular among the Afghans throughout the theater.

When properly executed, a biometric-oriented mission can enable the battle space owner to conclusively identify the peaceful local population, empower the local leadership and develop good will between local nationals and coalition forces. During a shura, a commander can explain how the biometric enrollment procedures will work and request permission to conduct an enrollment session where the village elders are responsible for identifying the people belonging to their village and having them get enrolled. When the cards are printed, they will be returned to the village elders who will then issue them to their people. By doing this, the authority of the village elders is emphasized in each step of the process and the commander now has a way to identify the peaceful population that belongs in the village. In the future, if a Soldier comes across someone claiming to be a local villager who does not have the identification card and is not registering in the local database on the HIIDE, the Soldier immediately knows to bring the individual to the elders for identification. The ability to conduct quick and conclusive identity checks is critical, especially when a unit is new to an AOR and still becoming familiar with its surroundings and its locals.

This technique is called Civil Census Engagement and has been successfully used in Afghanistan to help stabilize villages and shut off other bases of support for insurgents. Restricting freedom of movement and inhibiting the insurgents’ ability to blend in with the local populace will be critical in achieving victory in Afghanistan, and biometrics permits Coalition forces to do just that without endangering or aggravating the peaceful population. In the next article of this series, I will examine additional uses of biometrics to promote COIN objectives as well as some of the reasons that it has not been utilized to its full capacity in theater.

Posted on 23 Jun 2010

Photo: flickr

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