Biometrics: anti-terrorist . . . and anti-privacy

It looks as if Afghanistan continues to serve as a laboratory to test methods for fighting terrorism – not to mention combating corruption and ineptitude as well.  Strategy Page reports:

Under pressure from the U.S. the Afghan Army recently completed the distribution of ID cards using biometric data to everyone in the Afghan Army. This use of biometric data in government ID has been available in Afghanistan for over a decade but corrupt politicians understood the impact of such an ID system and until 2015 prevented full implementation. In 2015 a newly elected government allowed these biometric ID efforts to proceed. While a lot less corrupt and more accommodating than the previous Karzai government the current Afghan government is still finding the bureaucracy paralyzed by the often conflicting demands by politicians representing a wide number of tribal, ethnic, religious and personal interests. It’s like herding cats, but cats with automatic weapons and very short tempers. The cats are also clever and adaptive. Unable to block or delay full implementation of the biometric system in the security forces most offenders shed their ghost soldiers before their troops received the cards. As a result only a few thousand ghost soldiers were actually discovered and 80 percent of them were not the result of corruption (there is still incompetence and administrative failures at work) and those that were offenses that could be prosecuted were of officers or individuals too dumb or unlucky when it came to adapting. Meanwhile there is still a lot of theft and bad behavior in the security forces that is the result of the traditional tolerance for corruption or bribes and intimidation by drug gangs.

Despite that continued corruption the United States has built a large and growing library of data on actual and suspected terrorists and supporters as well as the Afghan population in general. This has given the anti-corruption forces (both local and foreign) a powerful tool. This was all the result of some major technical innovations that made it easier to gather and use biometric (fingerprints, iris, facial recognition, DNA) identification. After 2003 the U.S. developed tools that enabled combat troops to use biometrics on the battlefield. The main tool was initially called SEEK (Secure Electronic Enrolment Kit). This is a portable electronic toolkit that collects biometrics from people anywhere and at any time. This included fingerprint scans, eye (iris) scans, and digital photos of suspects and later DNA samples. All this eventually ended up in a master database, which eventually contained 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 kits, so that wanted people can quickly be identified and captured. This is what the American commandos did on the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid. While DNA tests 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. But often all you have is DNA and that’s where the portable DNA analyzers come in. These began arriving after 2011 but the basic SEEK level biometrics are still the main tool.

In Afghanistan the government used SEEK kits to collect data on millions of Afghans so 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 with impunity. The U.S. has long been collecting biometrics from those they arrest or otherwise encounter and want to positively identify. This data makes it easier to figure out who is naughty and who is not. 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. After several years of collecting data raiding parties knew 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. Adapting this expertise to creating very difficult-to-fake IDs is not a large leap but it’s not one that will result in many press releases. But now the corrupt military and government officials have come to fear the biometrics as well. 

There’s more at the link.

This same technology is increasingly being used within the USA.  Companies are using biometric data to identify and control their employees, including regulating access to sensitive offices, data, etc.  State drivers licenses are increasingly being ‘tagged’ with biometric identifiers, and photographs of license-holders are being incorporated into massive facial recognition databases.  There are even suggestions that our vehicles should incorporate biometric recognition technology, to ensure that whoever tries to use them is authorized to do so.  (The fact that such recognition technology might also be interrogated by law enforcement in real time, to find out who’s in the vehicle and where they’re going, is usually left unsaid – as is the potential for law enforcement to automatically disable the vehicle, and force it to park until they’ve checked it out.)

It seems that the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is increasingly a war on personal privacy as well.  I sometimes feel like a dinosaur, in the sense that I still value and insist on my right to privacy.  Sadly, many younger people today seem to feel it’s much less important.  Nevertheless, I’ll safeguard what shreds of privacy I have left, and resist any further intrusion by ‘Big Brother’ or anyone else.



  1. Having grown up in a small town, it has always been clear to me that privacy is an illusion.
    That doesn't mean I want everything I do or say in a centralized database. Uncle Sam is slightly more concerning than Google or Facebook because it's backed up with guns and a lot of vague laws that can be used to indict pretty much anyone. But only slightly, as it's inevitable that such a database will be abused.

  2. When you start really exploring what is possible at this point in time with the computing power, storage, surveillance technology and the sheer connectedness of everything it's the kind of thing that can keep one up at night. Fiction like 1984 or Enemy of the State and the ever quoted biblical passage "And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name." is no longer fiction or biblical prophecy but entirely within the realm of current technology. An astonishingly large percentage of the population is perfectly fine with Big Brother or Little Sister constantly monitoring every move they make, their every thought right down to what they're watching on tv, what pornography they prefer, how many and what appliances in their home are running, their movements right down to what they ate for dinner.

    To use another oft used quote, this one from Samuel Adams "May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.".

  3. Peter, you have a huge inconsistency with what you say and reality.

    You author an internet blog whereby you divulge many personal items, such as you comings and goings, photos of your residence, and details regarding your personal life and history. You do this on a venue whereby virtually anyone anywhere can access this information.

    And then in the same context of doing all of the above, you say "I still value and insist on my right to privacy".

    That is like taking your clothes off in your front yard, and saying that you do not like people seeing you.

    If you really valued privacy, I would never have heard of you.

  4. @Anonymous at 1:24 PM: On the contrary – I share minor personal details, the sort of things friends and acquaintances know anyway. I don't share more personal stuff, or financial information, or anything important. Neither do I discuss past events in sufficient detail as to identify me through my involvement – particularly the 'war years'.

    There's paranoid privacy (don't share anything), and there's powderpuff privacy (everything's out there). Realistic privacy is somewhere in between, and we all have to draw our own lines about it.

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