Military Needs Better Battleground Biometrics

Industry advances in biometrics need to be made available to military engaged in irregular warfare where clumsy security technology prevails.
Iris Scans: Security Technology In Action
Iris Scans: Security Technology In Action
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To defend the nation and defeat our adversaries engaged in irregular warfare, the Department of Defense requires a variety of capabilities -- in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, foreign internal defense and stability operations -- that all depend on separating enemy combatants from innocent civilians. Another challenge in irregular warfare is being able to distinguish loyal indigenous security forces from disloyal foes who can procure uniforms and equipment that allow them to blend with regular forces and conduct surprise attacks on installations or within government buildings.

Biometrics can be play an important role in addressing these challenges by helping to record the identities of enemy combatants and link individuals to events such as IED explosions.

The relative cost and performance of biometric systems have improved dramatically in the last 12 years. There is greater reliance today on multiple biometrics that can interoperate between vendors.

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There are many examples of large-scale systems that have been implemented quickly, at a predictable cost, using a framework of proven components that enables the delivered systems to be flexible, scalable and secure. This type of framework also allowed us to use multiple workflows and biometric modalities without complex custom software coding, and to be extensible through standards-compliant open interfaces.

There has also been a great expansion in the diversity of uses for biometrics. For example, in Canada we implemented a system for the Port of Halifax that uses vascular -- vein pattern -- biometrics for access by the port's 5,000 workers. And we provided the Restricted Area Identity Card that uses fingerprints and iris scans to secure Canada's 28 major airports.

As I recently testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, it is important to recognize that there are limitations to the biometric systems and methods available to U.S. military forces in theater.

For instance, data capture generally requires close physical proximity to a subject who is usually uncooperative, and relies on equipment and a system architecture that fails at times to meet vital needs. In addition, today's collection equipment employs custom-built integrated mobile kits that can be bulky and cumbersome. Also, there are problems with data synchronization.

Industry, however, can help overcome many of these limitations by providing new processing platforms derived from consumer mobile devices equipped with ruggedized biometric sensors, and by implementing interfaces -- using a unified architecture -- that streamline uploads to the authoritative database and returns match/no-match results to operators quickly. It is essential that transmitted and stored identity information and biometrics stay coupled, because separation of the data undermines the system's speed, accuracy and ability to detect enemy combatants.

In all regions of the world, we see widespread consumer acceptance of biometrics. There is significant interest from banks and other regulated industries, because biometrics can simplify the user experience while increasing security compared to passwords or a numeric PIN.

The Department of Defense today employs a user authentication approach that relies on a Common Access Card and PIN that is highly secure, but it remains cumbersome for users and isn't always practical.

In contrast, a commercially available biometrics-driven alternative used today in the banking industry is more convenient as well as less expensive and time consuming to administer. It also eliminates the problem of transport and lockout during PIN reset, and addresses risks that the current CAC and PIN model cannot, such as the impostor threat.

These international and industry developments are in many cases applicable to the challenges confronted by DOD in irregular warfare and can help improve internal security and stability through U.S. and partner country initiatives.

Mark L. Cohn is Chief Technology Officer for Unisys Federal Systems, responsible for portfolio strategy and solution development for major federal systems programs, working with government industry partners. His expertise  includes national security systems development, globally distributed monitor-and-control systems, biometrics, integrated security solutions and strategic business development.

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