Biometrics Track Bad Guys

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Northrop Grumman is developing a biometric intelligence system to help U.S. troops keep tabs on suspected terrorists and insurgents. The system, which identifies people by their fingerprints, iris patterns or other biological metrics, is meant to meet a need identified by U.S. forces in Iraq.

On February 5, 2006, soldiers from the Texas-based 4th Infantry Division, deployed to north-central Iraq since the previous fall, sortied from their base to set up checkpoints outside the town of Balad. The town was so bad that the Iraqi army had sent one of its crack Kurdish units, normally based in the peaceful north of the country, into an outpost downtown. But snipers had kept the Kurdish troops from even leaving the base. Balad was desperately in need of some spring cleaning.

But standing at their checkpoint on a road outside Balad, the soldiers realized they lacked the necessary tools. Army intelligence had provided them with a list including names, descriptions and in some cases outdated photos of known bad guys. The soldiers carried fuzzy color copies of the list in their pockets and compared every passerby to the descriptions. But the photos too grainy and the descriptions too vague: pretty much every Iraqi man has a moustache, black hair and brown eyes. As for names? Besides sharing a small number of popular surnames, Iraqis have a habit of tacking their fathers and grandfathers name onto their own or even going by nicknames that dont match their photo IDs at all, assuming they even have photo IDs. There was just no way for the American soldiers to reliably know if they had happened to ensnare a bad guy in their net. And on that February afternoon, they returned to base empty-handed and frustrated.

Stinging from failures like those in Balad last year, in January the Army gave Los Angeles-based defense firm Northrop Grumman $20 million to develop a biometric solution. The idea, says Northrop Grumman vice president Larry Schneider, is to ingest disparate sources of military information worldwide, to establish a central repository that can be queried. So if someone shows up at one place and says his name is one thing, then shows up somewhere else saying his name is another thing, that can be identified and can be passed back to tactical land forces.

Soldiers might register detainees biometrics using a portable scanner. That info, combined with a brief history of the suspect, would be fed into a central database back in the States and analyzed by algorithms endlessly searching for connections between suspects. If, during a future operation, the soldiers happen across any of the same suspects as before, the system would alert them. Over time, the system might accumulate enough data on suspects movements to begin drawing conclusions about behavior patterns, allowing intelligence agents to predict suspects activities and, if necessary, thwart them.

People talk about how were disadvantaged in asymmetric warfare, Schneider says, using the militarys favorite term for big industrial armies fighting elusive, low-tech insurgents and terrorists. Biometrics, he adds, are an example of how our technology advantages us.

-- David Axe

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