Biometric identification systems are one of those technologies that everyone in the military seems to want but that few can make work. Biometrics in theory might solve the problem of how you sort bad guys from throngs of innocent civilians in a place like Iraq: you ID them by their unique iris- or fingerprints or their facial patterns. The problem is that you have to know a person’s prints and patterns first — you have to “enroll” them — before you can pick them out of a crowd.
Many handheld enrollment systems in use on an ad hoc basis in Iraq have proved too flimsy and sensitive for local conditions, as Paul McLeary will report in the next issue of DTI. But for one organization, enrollment isn’t even an issue: the coalition advisors training the Iraqi police are using the Automated Fingerprint Identification System — which is popular with U.S. police forces — paired with old Ba’ath Party fingerprint databases, to screen police recruits.
This works because Saddam Hussein’s regime, like many dictatorships, kept extensive records on their friends and their enemies. So by digitizing those records and looking for matches among recruits, the police trainers have been able to catch scores of former felons, Ba’athists and other ne’er-do-wells before they donned the blue uniform, according to U.S. Army Brigadier General David Phillips. “We have caught people coming straight out of jail.”
This is a great example of re-using old data with new systems to achieve a result no one had anticipated when the data and the systems were created. Still, this does not represent a major success for proponents of battlefield biometrics. What we need is tough handheld enrollment devices for building new databases about current populations … and we need universal databases for Iraq so that trainers, military police and everyone else are on the same page.