Biometrics and security in Iraq

The U.S. military and Iraqi government have logged thousands of fingerprints and iris scans, but the systems are a long way from being fully up-to-date.

Biometrics Automated Toolset
Marines make use of the Biometrics Automated Toolset system in Fallujah on July 19. Cpl. Joel Abshier/U.S. Marines Corps

As state-level officials and other critics push back hard against the federal Real ID mandate here at home, the U.S. government is reporting success abroad with a biometric ID system it has installed in Iraq.

The automated biometric identity system being used by the Iraqi government now holds more than 350,000 sets of fingerprints, photos and retina scans, and "we increase the database by 4,000 or 5,000 each week," Army Lt. Col. John W. Velliquette Jr. said in a teleconferenced briefing this week. Velliquette runs the fingerprint and retina scanning center in Baghdad's International Zone. Iraqis are expected to assume full operation by next summer.

The system is used to verify the identity of members of the Iraqi police and military, prisoners and prison guards, and authorized gun owners. (The guns must be kept in homes; they're not to be carried out in the streets.) It's also used to identify criminals and suspects in criminal cases, Velliquette said. "We will get criminal hits; we get 10 to 20 a week from the minister of Interior."

And then there are the bureaucratic benefits. "We also weed out ghost employees," Velliquette said, "people who collect two paychecks but actually only work one job."

The ID system may not be as futuristic as the term "biometrics" would imply. Judging by the briefing transcript, it seems skewed heavily toward fingerprints--a biometric identification technology that's been around since the Sherlock Holmes era. Indeed, Velliquette referred to it as the Automated Fingerprint System, or AFIS.

And civilian employees of the Interior Ministry who collect information in the field via "jump kit" (Panasonic Toughbook computer, Livescan fingerprint scanner) can't upload the data directly to the main office. "Because of connectivity problems over here, the information is burned onto a CD (and) taken over to Adnan Palace," Velliquette said.

While we all hope that the ID system is helping to take some of the danger out of a dangerous place, the possibility exists that access by bad guys to the Interior Ministry database could lead to harm for some. Noah Shachtman, writing in Wired's Danger Room blog, called out Velliquette's concern that the database could become, in the lieutenant colonel's words, "a hit list if it gets in the wrong hands."

BAT system closeup
The business end of the BAT system. Cpl. Joel Abshier/U.S. Marines Corps

Personal information in the database includes an individual's name, parents' names, address, birth data, height and weight--but not religious affiliation.

"Some sectors are entirely Sunni, some are entirely Shi'ite," Velliquette said, "so we take great pains to make sure this database stays in proper hands."

At the moment, the only people in Baghdad with access to the main database are seven American contractors and 24 employees of the Interior Ministry.

Actually, there are three biometric systems in operation. In addition to AFIS, there's the Biometrics Automated Toolset system, which is used to identify residents of particular cities, and the Biometric Identification System for Access, which is used for access to bases and to the International Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi officials and foreign diplomats work. All of the local systems are linked to the Pentagon's Biometric Fusion Center, in Clarksburg, W.Va. But they don't connect to each other, meaning that someone recorded in a BAT database in Fallujah who then moved to Baghdad wouldn't necessarily be readily identified.

The U.S. Marine Corps has found the BAT system to its liking. Fielded initially for use in military detention centers, it has come into everyday service on a much wider scope by units in Iraq (and Afghanistan). Residents of Fallujah, for instance, have to show ID badges created in connection with the system to get past checkpoints. "With the occupation here, badges have become part of the Iraqis' way of life," Cpl. Jonathan Rudolph, the BAT system noncommissioned officer with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, told Marine Corps News recently.

As of the end of July, Marine BAT system operators had completed, updated or renewed over 5,200 ID cards since the beginning of June.

About the author

Jonathan Skillings is managing editor of CNET News, based in the Boston bureau. He's been with CNET since 2000, after a decade in tech journalism at the IDG News Service, PC Week, and an AS/400 magazine. He's also been a soldier and a schoolteacher, and will always be a die-hard fan of jazz, the brassier the better.

 

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