Noah Shachtman / Wired – 2009-02-09 21:59:36
Spies Want to Scan Your Iris From Afar
Noah Shachtman / Wired
(February 06, 2009) — There’s software that’s smart enough to recognize people by their faces, or by their irises. But those algorithms are finicky. To work properly, subjects usually have to be willing to play along — looking straight into the camera, when the light is just right.
The new uber-geek arm of American spy agencies, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, is looking to change that.
Researchers there want to do iris and face-scans from far away, and “under uncontrolled acquisition conditions.” So they’re launching a new project, “Biometrics Exploitation Science and Technology” (BEST) to find new ways to get this face and eye data, even when the subject is moving and the lighting is all wrong.
“The minimum objective is to exceed by a factor of three what is commercially available today, with recognition performance similar to that achieved with the cooperative or conditioned individual under controlled acquisition,” a recent announcement to industry notes.
A recent meeting in Virginia to discuss the project drew more than 130 researchers and executives. Many were from well-established defense contractors, like General Electric, Harris, Batelle, and Raytheon. Others were from less conventional firms.
Take Conway, New Hampshire’s Animetrics Inc., which is trotting out a “portable face recognition” program for the iPhone, called iFace. In addition to wooing spies, the company has a commercial edition of the software. “iFace Celebrity Edition…. match[es] you to your most similar celebrity,” the company promises.
“The elegant simplicity of the iPhone makes this application both easy to use and very fun… The iFace output of the top celebrities who resemble your face will be popular among social networkers.” There’s no mention of whether the celebrity-matching game was played at the spy agency’s confab.
Could Iris Scans Stop a New Iraq Insurgency?
Noah Shachtman / Wired
Iraq’s government and Sunni militias appear to be headed for a showdown. One of the things that just might keep a full-blown insurgency from erupting again, a leading expert in the region says, is a set of databases of fingerprints and irises, built by the US military — and fed with data from Saddam.
The extra troops get all the credit, in the dumbed-down political debate. But one of the biggest reasons for Iraq’s turnaround was the decision by Sunnis — many of them former insurgents — to begin backing the US, instead. They were organized into local militias, called “Sons of Iraq,” and promised government jobs, in return for the service. And just to convince the Sunnis that American forces had their best interests at heart, we they fed ’em a steady diet of anti-Shi’a propaganda.
But the jobs never completely materialized. And Iraq’s largely Shi’ite national government is slamming down on the Sons of Iraq, with apparently American backing. “Our goal is that by June 2009, the Sons of Iraq are out of business,” Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer said over the weekend.
“It is obvious where this road might end,” Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl write in today’s Los Angeles Times. “The last time tens of thousands of armed Sunni men were humiliated in Iraq — by disbanding the Baath Party and Iraqi army in May 2003 — an insurgency began, costing thousands of US lives and throwing Iraq into chaos. Yet Maliki and his advisors risk provoking Iraq’s Sunni community into another round of violence.”
So what’s to stop another Sunni insurgency from boiling over? After all, “it doesn’t take 100,000 of these guys to revert to insurgents to cause big trouble. Remember, at the height of the insurgency, the US estimated that there were 8,000-20,000 fighters,” Kahl — a Georgetown professor and a Center for a New American Security senior fellow — tells DANGER ROOM.
Well, The Government of Iraq can make good on its promises to hire these militiamen. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki can hold provincial elections that give Sunnis a bigger stake in the political process. And Maliki can hope that the “high degree of ‘conflict exhaustion’ among Sunnis” stays high.
The Iraqi government has one other card to play, says Kahl, just back from the Middle East. Over the years, the American military in Iraq has assembled a series of biometric databases; hundreds of thousands of Iraqis’ fingerprints and irises are stored inside. In Fallujah and other Sunni-dominated cities, the only way to get in or out is within a US-issued badge, complete with this biometric info; that restricts potential insurgents’ freedom of movement.
The Sons of Iraq have also been iris- and fingerprint-scanned; that makes them easier to identify, if they’re caught rejoining the insurgent team. Finally, the databases — partially built on the backs on Saddam’s crminal records — “provides a useful enemies list to the Government of Iraq, if they chose to use it,” Kahl says.
That echoes what US Army Lieutenant Colonel John Velliquette told DANGER ROOM last year, when he said that the biometric info becomes “a hit list if it gets in the wrong hands.” Or the right ones.
Iraq Diary: Fallujah’s Biometric Gates
Noah Shachtman / Wired
(August 31, 2007) — The Marines have walled off Fallujah, and closed the city’s roads to traffic. The only way in is to have a badge. And the only way to get a badge is to have Marines snap your picture, scan your irises, and take all ten of your fingerprints. Only then can you get into the city.
The idea: deny insurgents “freedom of movement,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Smitherman, who heads the biometric badging program for Multi-National Forces-West, here in Al-Anbar province. “Like Mao said, insurgents are like fish swimming in the sea of the people.” These are the high-tech nets, “to keep ‘em from swimming freely.”
There are still plenty of holes in the nets. The biometric systems don’t all talk to one another. Nor do they interface, really, with the other fingerprint- and iris-tracking systems used in other parts of Iraq. Getting the machines to work far, far out in the field can give a Marine migraines. (And, for today, let’s not even get into the privacy and human-rights implications.) But, in combination with other measures, the badges do seem to be having an effect. After years of bombs and machine gun fire, the city of Fallujah has suddenly gone quiet.
Putting the system in place can be… well, tedious doesn’t even begin to describe it. One Iraqi after another walks into this converted schoolhouse, ringed with sandbags and razor wire. One Iraqi after another is asked their name, their tribe, and told to put their fingers on the glowing green scanner. A half-dozen Marines from the 2nd Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 6, take the information, and print out the badges. They blast Three-Six Mafia, and watch videos on their laptops, to keep from climbing the walls. One prefers anime, another sci-fi. Corporal Jonathan Rudolph, a twenty-year-old from South Brunswick, New Jersey, catches up on Grey’s Anatomy episodes. “So bored,” he mutters occasionally.
But then — every once in a long, long, endlessly long while – there’s action.
A local with a soul patch, a pot belly, and bloodshot eyes wanders into the schoolhouse. Wearing a dirty tan and orange polo shirt, the guy looks like a frat boy who’s just woken up from an extremely rough toga party. He hands his old, pre-biometric, badge to the intel officer, sitting two chairs to Rudolph’s right. A quick search shows that something’s wrong. Frat Boy is connected to a bomb-making cell, according to American intelligence. He’s told to stand at the back of the room, while the intel officer goes to call for specialist spies.
Meanwhile, another local is lead in. He’s supermodel skinny, with thick eyebrows and a stubbly goatee. His name doesn’t show up on the intel database. But when Rudolph scans his iris, Skinny’s name and picture pop up on the computer, overshadowing Grey’s Isaiah Washington. “This douchebag here… See his picture?” Rudolph asks me. “He’s wearing an orange jumpsuit. Which means he’s definitely been detained. Look at this: VBIED [vehicle-borne IED] cell, attacks on coalition forces.”
There’s a commotion, and series of questions back and forth. Finally, Iraqi policemen come in. They nudge Skinny and Frat Boy out of the room, through a courtyard, and down an open-air hallway. They open a metal door. The two walk through inside. The policemen slide a deadbolt, and snap a padlock shut.
Now, both Skinny and Frat Boys were locals. So they were already in the irises-and-prints system, called BATS (Biometric Automated Tool Set). Not all insurgent suspects might be. Because there are at least three different biometric systems at work in Iraq. None of those three talk well to one another – if at all. Back in Baghdad, they’re running a biometric badge system – based on Saddam’s old fingerprint records — to check on the backgrounds of Iraqi security forces. (Which brings up the question, is a criminal in Saddam’s eyes a bad guy – or a good one?) On the big base outside of town, there’s a third biometric database that monitors the men who work on post.
What’s more, because there’s no network connectivity at all in places like this precinct house, the entire 100 gigabyte BATS database has to be loaded onto every laptop. Updates to the main server happen, at best, every few days. So someone tagged as an insurgent in one part of town, then let go, might not raise alarms if he’s picked up again in another. Or he might get detained over and over and over, while the database waits to get refreshed.
Things get even more complicated when Marines use handheld versions of the biometric scanners. They only hold 10,000 names at a time. So a Marine has to pick which slice of the database he wants to have in his palm. And all of these systems are subject to danger of bored teenaged grunts, who may get sick of scanning irises, or spell “Muhammed” any one of a hundred ways.
But there are shady characters being caught, despite all that. And there’s a new rule that growing in Anbar, Smitherman says. “For you to come into the community, you gotta tell me who you are.”
UPDATE: Here’s your fun Iraq factoid of the day. In Fallujah, Iraqis are getting fingerprinted and iris-scanned. In Baghdad, American reporters like me get fingerprinted, iris-scanned, and have a half-dozen headshots taken, for face recognition programs. Wonder what the implicit message is there?
Iraq’s Biometric Database Could Become “Hit List”: Army
Noah Shachtman / Wired
(August 15, 2007) — The US is building on Saddam’s databases to assemble biometric files and national ID cards for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. American military officials say it’s a crucial step towards getting a handle on who the bad guys are in Iraq. But groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) spooked — in a sectarian civil war, they argue, a biometric identification can suddenly become a death warrant.
Today, in a blogger’s conference call, Lieutenant Colonel John Velliquette, the biometrics manager in Iraq for the “Coalition Police Assistance Training Team,” said he was worried, too.
“This database… becomes is a hit list if it gets in the wrong hands,” Lt. Col. Velliquette tells DANGER ROOM.
EPIC wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this summer that:
We recognize the strategic military importance of identifying threats to American military personnel. However… the biometric identification of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd populations vastly increases the possibility that this information may be misused at some future point.
Because names are associated with religious identity, many Iraqis change their names or carry fake IDs to avoid being murdered by rival sects. Numerous reports indicate that Iraqis regularly risk death if they are proven to be of a different sect than gunmen at a checkpoint. In July 2006, Shiite militiamen established a fake checkpoint and killed up to 50 Sunnis after examining their identification documents…
In Rwanda… official identification cards contained ethnic information. The classification system was a remnant from the Belgian colonial government, and was extensively used to identify victims to be killed. To have the word “Tutsi” on an identification card was a death sentence.
So I asked Lt. Col. Velliquette about these concerns.
Q Hey, Colonel, thanks for doing this. It’s Noah Shachtman with Wired magazine. A couple questions, or couple-part questions. Besides the picture and the iris and the fingerprints, what other information is tied to this biometric? That’s part one.
LT. COL. VELLIQUETTE: Well, when you take the person’s biometrics, you have them bring in their jensea (ph) card, which is the Iraqi national identification card. It’s not really an advanced card, but it’s the information from which they start. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re assigning fingerprints of this person’s identity, his name on the jensea (ph) card. So all that information off the jensea card (ph) — his name, all the travel names, father’s name, mother’s name — is all entered into the database. And the database is, I must add, is both in English and Arabic. And it takes his address, other personal biographical information, his height, weight, hair color –
Q Date of birth, religion, that kind of stuff?
LT. COL. VELLIQUETTE: Exactly. Well, no, I’m not so sure about the religion part.
Q But certainly the tribal — I mean the tribal information maps to the religion, right?
LT. COL. VELLIQUETTE: It could. It could. You know, the MOI is taking great pains not to make a big deal as far as what religion they are, whether it’s Sunni or Shi’ite. They’re very conscious about that. So to my knowledge, they don’t — that information’s not put on a database. This database, I must add, is also very sensitive, because essentially what it becomes is a hit list if it gets in the wrong hands. You know, some sectors are entirely Sunni, some are entirely Shi’ite, so we make take great pains to make sure this database stays in the proper hands.
I also asked Lt. Col. Velliquette about Bing West’s allegations, that “a few enterprising American rifle companies have conducted their own independent censuses, employing rudimentary spreadsheets and personal digital cameras. But no central information system exists.”
Not exactly, Lt. Col. Velliquette countered.
Q …[M]y understanding was that in addition to the efforts that you’re performing, also a number of local commanders are… ollecting biometrics in their own AOs. Is there any attempt to bring that sort of piecemeal biometric together? And, you know, does the commander in the field have access to your… central database?
LT. COL. VELLIQUETTE: Yes. The three — the other two systems that you’re talking about in country are the Biometric Automated Tool Set [BAT], which is a coalition force protection system. It has a secret component, on the high side, and also there’s the Biometric Identification System for Access, which is used for base access.
For instance, to get into the International Zone, you would have to go through that system.
All three systems are actually tied together through the Biometrics Fusion Center in West Virginia. And the BAT system is used out in the field by local commanders for force protection issues mainly. A local commander out in the field will not have access to the Iraqi database generally, just because there are no current systems set up in place to do that…
Q [So] if I have a BAT system in Fallujah and I have somebody entered into my system and that person moves to Baghdad, you know, there’s no way to track that person from Fallujah to Baghdad. Or there’s no — the system in Baghdad won’t also have that information.
LT. COL. VELLIQUETTE: Are you talking about Iraqi AFIS?
Q [So if] a commander in the field takes a fingerprint of a insurgent suspect in Fallujah. Let’s say that guy shows up again in Baghdad. Will there be any biometric information about that person?
LT. COL. VELLIQUETTE: Well, if he collected biometric information from that person in Fallujah, then it’s in the system at the Biometrics Fusion Center in West Virginia. So if he’s detained for whatever reason in Baghdad, and hopefully if he’s a insurgent suspect, hopefully he’s not still loose.
LT. COL. VELLIQUETTE: But if he’s contacted again in Baghdad then yes, it is possible to find out if he’s in the system.
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