Support: China May Just Solve This Problem


March 22, 2017: The Chinese military is experimenting with identity tags (“dog tags”) for troops that use a variety of more efficient data technology, including QR (Quick Response) Codes and data chips. These experiments include the use of fitness bands for monitoring pulse and smart phone type software for collecting this data. QR Code is a type of bar code that has become more popular because smart phones can scan it. QR type bar codes uses an array of blocks to hold from 400 to 2,000 bytes of data. QR codes have become very popular in China and over thirty other nations are experimenting with QR codes and data chips for soldier ID tags.

Since the 1990s the American military has been gradually making more use of bar codes for tracking equipment. Because the greater use of automation and self-service was also enthusiastically accepted by the troops it was found that there was little resistance to bar code tracking. The greater use of PDAs (at first) then smart phones and bar code scanners for collecting data was much appreciated, as constantly entering all those numbers into logbooks was never very popular. In the navy this meant smaller crews and that left more space for everyone, which has been well received.

During this time the U.S. Army has been trying, without much success so far, to replace the dog tags with an electronic device. Bar codes could not be easily modified, but small chips could. The main problem has been the difficulty designing and building a device that was able to survive the harsh battlefield conditions. The army thought they had a suitable design in 2006 and tested this credit card size device by having some 13,000 troops carrying the bulkier prototype. These "smart dog tags" did not survive in the combat zone and a new prototypes are still in the works.

When a workable smart dog tag is built medics treating a soldier would hold the scanner near smart dog tag and get all the essential medical data. The smart dog tag would get updated as treatment continued. Thus the soldier would always have his complete medical history with him. That data would include allergies (especially to some medicines) and previous treatments. The Chinese are willing to have QR Codes that simply hold more basic medical information about the soldier.

By 2006 the U.S. Army had computerized medical information on 9.2 million troops and their dependents. Thousands of medics in Iraq and Afghanistan had electronic devices that could access that data as needed. Quick access to this data is one of the many factors that has brought down the death rate in the combat zone. Having all that data in an electronic database also makes it much easier to find useful patterns in treatments, injuries and diseases. This, in turn, makes it easier to find and fix problems. For the moment, that is the future of the dog tag but there is still the problem of designing a compact and rugged enough electronic storage device.

Meanwhile there were some simpler dog tag problems that were solved, In 2015 the U.S. Army finally agreed, after more than a decade of growing complaints, to remove the social security number (SSN) from the metal dog tags all military personnel must wear at all times. The SSN was added in the 1970s, replacing the unique ID number troops had been assigned on entering service. By the 1990s troop complaints were growing that the SSN was increasingly used by criminals to commit fraud. Thus in 2007 the military began studying how to replace the SSN with a more secure ID number.

In most armed forces every soldier gets issued two ID Tags and a chain hold the tags as they are worn around the neck. These "dog tags" have been with the U.S. Army since 1906. Early on, soldiers found that if you need access to something important and didn't want to have to dig through your pockets to get it, you could hang it on the same chain you had your dog tags on. In World War II, Korea and Vietnam the most prevalent item on a GI's dog tag chain was the P38 can opener for the small cans C-rations came in (for feeding troops in combat or field exercises). This P38 disappeared in the 1980s as MRE rations (no cans, just plastic bags) replaced C-rations. In the late 1990s the USB thumb drive or "memory stick" appeared and troops began to add one of those to the dog tag chain. Troops kept their email from home, digital pictures and all manner of stuff on these USB devices. Some officers tied to forbid the practice, as you are not supposed to take such documents with you into a combat zone (lest you be captured and the data prove useful to the enemy.) But the troops still carry the memory sticks around with them. The terrorists also liked to schlep data around on memory sticks. But it took time to find the useful secrets, though, as you first have to plow through all the porn and MP3 files.

The security of medical data stored on future ID tags is also an issue but so far no one has developed an electronic ID tag that can survive a combat zone.