Base access in the blink of an eye?

(MILITARY TIMES)   Two years ago, a number of Iraqis who applied for the Iraq Police Academy were flagged as having characteristics that matched those of previously identified terrorists and insurgents.

How? Biometrics — the ability to measure physiological or behavioral characteristics and compare them to scans stored in a database.

In fact, in the fiscal year that ended last September, biometrics took about 400 “tier one high-value individuals” — snipers, bomb makers, insurgent leaders and the like — off the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Biometrics Task Force, an Army agency with a Defense Department-wide mission, won’t say how many were snagged in the past 12 months and won’t give specific examples of how certain bad guys were caught, citing security concerns.

But the group says its technology is evolving, is in high demand and has made solid gains in enabling the sharing of information across government agencies.

The biggest future growth, however, could be in the area of ready access to military bases and other government facilities through technologies such as “iris on the move,” said Lisa Swan, the task force’s deputy director for integration.

“To be able to drive up, show your iris, and the system says, ‘Yes, I know you, you’re allowed here,’ and the gate opens … it’s certainly technically feasible,” she said. “But to be practical, it has to happen pretty fast. So if you can use biometrics like iris on the move, where it’s actually catching your iris as you’re driving up, you don’t have to stop the car, and so you’re not backing traffic up at Quantico or Norfolk.”

The Air Force is testing biometrically enabled physical access systems at two Florida bases.

Officials also want to perfect iris identification at a distance — something a Navy or Coast Guard boarding team could use, Swan said. And fusion — computing different scans of varying quality to come up with a positive match — “continues to be something we’re working to make better and better.”

While biometrics and iris scans have seemed familiar to movie audiences for years — think 1993’s “Demolition Man” and 2002’s “Minority Report” — the Pentagon’s interest is relatively recent. It was sparked by a 1999 assessment but surged, according to Swan, after a 2003 suicide attack in Iraq in which the bomber was someone who had been given access to the base.

“Somebody said, ‘We’ve got to come up with a better way to vet who we’re letting on the bases,’” she said. “And they realized that biometrics could do that.”

Within two years, the Biometric Identification System for Access was supporting the war effort. In 2007, that technology was supplemented by the Biometrics Automated Toolset, which performs a biometric iris scan and facial recognition tasks on a laptop-computer-based system and stores it on a server in a secure network.

The task force maintains its database in two server-filled rooms in West Virginia, one in a building shared with the FBI; the two will share a new facility by the end of 2013, Swan said.

The task force leaves analysis to the intelligence experts. The National Ground Intelligence Center in central Virginia, Swan said, does most of that work. “Our piece of it is just the ‘store, match, share,’” she said.

How fast is it? When members of Special Forces — “our most demanding customer,” Swan said — send in a file from, say, a mountaintop in Afghanistan, they used to have to wait about 15 minutes for a response, depending on the quality of the communications links.

“Now, sometimes, we can turn those around in a minute and a half,” Swan said. “That includes having a human in the loop.”

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