Intelligence: The Taliban Got the Biometric Border Blues

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November 12, 2011: Pakistan, under pressure from the United States and Afghanistan, has agreed to resume using biometric (fingerprinting, photos and iris scans) of people using the roads between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The equipment for this was installed at border posts near Quetta (the capital of Baluchistan province, which forms Afghanistan's southern border) five years ago. But after a few days, thousands of armed, and angry, tribesmen forced the border posts to shut down until they got rid of the biometric gear. The Taliban, and drug gangs, knew that this biometric stuff was being used with great success in Afghanistan to identify and track Islamic radicals and all sorts of criminals. It is believed that this new attempt will be equally short-lived and unsuccessful. But the Pakistanis are under pressure to show the Americans and Afghans that they are not partners with the Taliban.

One reason for this pessimism can be found in what was reported in the Pakistani media earlier this year about Osama bin Laden. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2nd, it was reported that his body was quickly identified and confirmed. That was done using biometric technology developed during the last decade, and applied widely in Iraq and Afghanistan. Called SEEK (Secure Electronic Enrolment Kit), this is a portable electronic toolkit that collects biometrics from people. This includes fingerprints, eye (iris) scan and photos of suspects, which are stored electronically. All this is stored in a master database, which now contains data on millions of terrorists, suspected terrorists, their supporters and other "persons of interest". Troops in the field can carry part of that database with them in their SEEK unit, so that wanted people can quickly be identified and arrested. This is what the American commandos did on the bin Laden raid. While DNA tests (which take hours to perform, on not-so-portable equipment) are the best form of ID, if you have fingerprints, iris scans and a photo, you are nearly as certain. Even just fingerprints and the face scan/photo, is pretty convincing. Because of the reporting on SEEK after the bin Laden raid, there were few Pakistani officers or government officials who were unaware of what biometrics was and what it could do.

In Afghanistan, the government this year used SEEK kits to collect data on nearly two million Afghans, so that these people could be issued very secure (hard to fake) ID cards. For the government, this makes it more difficult for criminals, Taliban and Islamic radicals in general to infiltrate the government, or just operate freely. The U.S. has long collected biometrics from those they arrest, or otherwise encounter and want to positively identify. This database now has nearly a million people in it. This data makes it easier to figure who is naughty and who is not.

All this began during the war in Iraq. Early on in the war on terror, the Department of Defense adopted many practices that major police departments had long employed. One of the more useful techniques is biometrics. That is, every time the troops encounter a "person of interest", they don't just take their name and address, they also use SEEK to collect the biometric data.

The fingerprints are particularly useful, because when they are stored electronically, you can search and find out immediately if the print you have just lifted from somewhere else, like off the fragment of a car bomb, is in there or not. The digital photos of people, from several angles, are also useful, because these pictures are run through software that creates a numeric "ID" that can be used by security cameras to look for someone specific, or for finding someone from a witness description. Other nations are digitizing their mug shots, and this enables these people to be quickly checked against those in the American database.

For decades, the U.S. military has regularly collected huge amounts of information from accidents, or even combat encounters. So now, it's no surprise that forensics teams examine each bombing (car or roadside) and combat scene, to see if they can get fingerprints. Often bomb makers are found this way, because raids frequently encounter suspicious characters, but no evidence that can lock them up.

It only takes about two minutes per subject to use SEEK to take the biometric data, so any suspicious characters are quickly added to the master database. Now, after several years of this, raiding parties know to grab any guy who seems to panic at the sight of the biometrics equipment coming out. The terrorists know that biometrics is bad news for them, and they fear it.

Combat troops now get training on how to use the biometrics gear, and everyone now accepts that this stuff is a powerful weapon in the war against terrorists. Shifting this expertise to creating very difficult-to-fake IDs is not a large leap.

 


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