The fingerprint-collecting work by the U.S. military -- though not yet supported with enthusiasm by NATO partners with privacy and other legal concerns -- has helped pin down terrorists who operate in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly abroad as well. Fingerprints are sometimes taken from fragments of exploded devices and a search is made to find gangs creating them. Biometric fingerprint enrollment is supported by the Afghan government, however.
This week at the Biometric Consortium Conference, Col. Jose Smith spoke on the topic of how the fingerprint-enrollment process he has helped lead in Afghanistan is now shifting to training Afghans to enroll Afghans. He noted that fingerprint biometrics collection in Afghanistan has also gotten help from the FBI and Dept. of Justice in prison settings with 15,000 prisoners.
But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the U.S. military is pondering how to take what it learned about biometrics in the fires of war and retain it for future use, given what are expected to be shrinking budgets.
Lt. Gen. John Allen, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, on Thursday delivered strong support for biometrics, saying the use of the technology "had saved the lives of thousands of troops."
"It's become a weapon on the battlefield against an implacable enemy," Allen said in his keynote address at the conference. He said he has personally seen in Afghanistan how speed in identifying the enemy through biometrics has made it possible to capture Al-Quada militants but that it's still taking far too long to get fingerprints into the Defense Department's database.
Biometrics collection in Iraq and Afghanistan has "helped us separate the enemy from the population," Allen said. He believes there is authority to share the valuable information in the Defense Department's biometric database with other agencies such as the Department of Justice to help combat terrorism.
Sharing biometric data
The task of linking the databases of fingerprint biometrics maintained by the FBI and the military, as well as fingerprints collected in efforts such as the US-VISIT program that requires international visitors to submit to fingerprint collection, is still a challenge.
Interoperability is still an issue, said Myra Gray, director of BIMA. Policy and legal challenges related to how much access can be permitted across federal agencies and how that will be controlled is still under discussion before critical federal biometrics databases will all have better sharing. "There are a lot of issues we face to get to that nirvana," Gray said. Policies have to be established so it's "not a free for all" and in conformance with law.
But there is one area where the U.S. military does have a new idea for fingerprint collection in this country that will soon begin. It's in the area of recruitment of new military trainees. Individuals who want to join up have to disclose any obstacles, such as a criminal record, that might hinder their acceptance in the military.
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