Accurate identification of targets, even in the most remote locations, is critical to military operations. Dr Gareth Evans investigates how biometrics-based identification technology has developed from a clunky add-on into an integral part of mission equipment and perhaps the precursor to an entirely new form of enemy surveillance
Little more than five years ago, biometric technology still largely represented a new and somewhat unconventional item in the military toolkit - an “add-on to the mission”, in the words of Myra S Gray, director of the US Army’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency (BIMA).
Today, with estimates suggesting that about 2.2 million Iraqis and 1.5 million Afghans - said to roughly equate to a quarter and one in six of all the men of fighting age respectively - is held on NATO and local national databases, that perception has undoubtedly changed. While conventional photographs and fingerprints have been relied upon to establish individual IDs for decades, the principal advantage that biometrics can bring to the table is the ability to search millions of files in seconds. This factor, coupled with its ability to provide accurate identification at even the most remote of locations via portable hand-held devices, as well as swiftly scan databases held by a range of different agencies as appropriate, has cemented the technology’s position as an integral part of modern military operations.
Given the nature of conflicts facing the modern soldier, speed and certainty are essential when it comes to distinguishing friend from foe. In this context, iris recognition is one of the most widely familiar biometric tools and the one which has probably enjoyed the most attention to date. By combining computer imaging with recognition algorithms and statistical inference in order to mathematically analyse the unique patterns of an individual's eyes- typically comparing 200 or more sample points- this technology is said to be at least as accurate as a single fingerprint and can provide real-time identification in the field.
The key to it lies in the fact that iris structure is set during early development, while it remains remarkably stable throughout life. The upshot of this is that, in the absence of a person suffering significant eye damage, a 'one-off' single digitised image can provide a lifetime of unambiguous ID and in most cases regardless of any interference from spectacles or contact lenses. DNA too offers identification on an unchangeable basis, but despite its renowned forensic value it is often less appropriate for many in-theatre military applications. As consultant biochemist Dr Clare Miles explains, time can be a serious limiting factor. "Although it allows you to get an ID with unprecedented accuracy, and even though the technology has improved enormously over recent years, it's still not what you'd exactly call a five-minute job." Real-time biometric identification by means of DNA analysis has, however, recently come a step closer with the announcement at the end of 2011 of a contract for Northrop Grumman Corporation and teammate lntegenX Inc to supply the latter's RapidHIT 200 human DNA identification system to the US Army's SIMA. This system the first ever, fully automated approach, capable of producing standardised DNA profiles from routine cheek swabs and other samples in less than 90 minutes - means analysis can now take place at the point of collection, avoiding the usual delays as samples are transported to distant laboratories for processing. It may still not quite be a 'five-minute job', but it undeniably raises the bar on actionable DNA biometrics.
Ups & Downs
There have been notable successes· perhaps most significantly with the role biometric profiling played in April 2011 in helping to recapture 35 escapees within days of a Taliban devised break out from Kandahar's Sarposa Prison. With their iris scans, fingerprints and facial data recorded on the US Automated Biometric Information System database, many were caught at routine checkpoints, while one was arrested at a recruiting station attempting to infiltrate Afghan security forces. Nevertheless, current technology has its limitations. In the aftermath of the Sarposa jail break, for instance, many hand-held devices were found to be suffering from what were officially described as functioning 'issues' in the heat. There are other factors too, as even the most robust of screens can break if dropped, and more widely, the roll out of all forms of biometric identification for unsupervised applications, such as entry points, is hampered by the obvious need to ensure the body part presented is still attached to its rightful owner. Clearly there are challenges for the future, but the technologies are fast evolving to meet them.
One of the potentially most game-changing applications mooted, one which is currently in development, would see military personnel able to capture iris and facial scans of individuals from a distance - effectively forming the logical convergence of surveillance with biometrics. While this obviously removes the need to expose a soldier to possible danger to collect data, there is the further advantage that such covertly gathered biometrics allows a suspect to be entered on a database without that subjects knowledge - which could represent a significant potential edge in the cat-and-mouse game of counter-insurgency.
Honeywell's prototype Combined Face and Iris Recognition System, for instance, is intended to capture biometric information, then track an individual on the basis of that information from up to four metres. Although currently only in the testing phase, reports suggest it is capable of achieving around 95% accuracy. Similar research is underway too at CarnegieMellon University, where a BIMA-funded programme is developing a vehicle-mounted camera system to capture scans automatically at a distance of 12metres. Add to this some of the newly-emerging techniques of 'soft-biometrics' to identify ethnicity from iris texture which is claimed to be up to 90% accurate and researchers believe practical military applications of these systems will not be too far in the future.
In the longer term, it could also open up the way for what has become known as 'tactical non-cooperative biometrics' using biometric data as a means to target the enemy. The move towards increasing automation is already apparent, and with many of the world's defence budgets squeezed, the appeal of collecting biometrics via surveillance and drones - which can then be used to fight some kind of highly-robotic future war - is clear despite its distinctly sci-fi overtones. However, as Major Mark Swiatek of the US Air Force Academy pointed out at September's Biometric Consortium Conference in Florida, the idea of allowing "boxes" to "do all the dirty work" raises a host of difficult questions, ethically, politically and practically.
Automated systems need programming, and that requires intent. For the moment at least, away from the battlefield the military applications of biometrics appear set on a less contentious course. According to Gray, "the next big step forward in biometrics is definitely going to be in the business process arena", where she suggests it can help the US Army improve efficiency and reduce fraud. In the month that President Obama announced arguably the most significant defence review in American military history- with a 15% reduction to the US Army and Marine Corps - that seems to be a good direction in which to be headed.