U.S. Scans Afghan Inmates for Biometric Database
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Don’t think of the U.S. military’s new Detention Facility In Parwan as just a holding pen for suspected insurgents. It’s also an emerging datafarm, storing biometric information on its inmate population. In a country with a shaky commitment to the rule of law, those identifiers could become weapons.
Parwan, with its thousand-or-so detainee population, will become an Afghan-run detention complex next year. By 2014, it’ll become a major Afghan jail, run by the Ministry of Justice to incarcerate convicted criminals, not hold insurgents taken off the battlefield. But Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, who currently runs day-to-day operations at the detention center, explains that there’s a basic problem with Afghanistan’s criminal justice system: It doesn’t have a efficient information infrastructure to identify the people it holds. That’s where he comes in.
Every detainee who comes into Parwan leaves basic information with the Detainee Services Branch during in-processing: Name; father’s name; residence. A mark of any identifying scars, marks or tattoos. Residence of record. After a shower and a medical exam, the DSB scans their irises and collects prints from all of their fingers, rolling their thumbs for a 360-degree view. Its cameras snap five photographs of every detainee’s face. All of this information goes into a military database called the Automated Biometric Information System.
Troops in the field can access the system through a set of portable consoles that the DSB has on hand. The Biometrics Automated Toolset, or BAT, allows troops who detain insurgents on the battlefield to get a quick biometric identification of who they’ve captured, all through talking to the database. One clunky component of it, the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection System (HIIDE), which looks like a big black FunSaver, takes pictures of a captive’s irises, facial features and fingerprints. BATS and HIIDE were used in Iraq, where counterinsurgents like David Kilcullen praised the devices for allowing troops to quickly and positively identify known insurgents during the surge.
But any detective will tell you that a database is only as good as the data it contains. And after 30 years of war, Afghanistan isn’t really in the data-collection game. The U.S. military’s detentions command, known as Joint Task Force-435, is working with the Afghan Ministry of Interior to kick-start an up-to-date records program.
Martins says he and the ministry want “enrollments on 15 percent of fighting-age males,” Afghans between the ages of 14 and 49. Studies that he’s seen convince him that 15 percent represents a Gladwellian tipping point, allowing the U.S. and the Afghans to match exponentially more latent fingerprints off homemade bombs to Afghans in the system.
But that means biometric information about one million people. And the easiest way to get this information is by locking up a whole lot of Afghans and collecting it against their will, one of the reasons that human rights advocates are wary about the U.S.’s plans to turn over Parwan to the Afghans.
In Iraq, privacy advocates raised similar concerns about weaponizing the biometrics database — essentially, turning it into a military hit list. Afghanistan is filled with corruption, fraud and malicious police officers. Its commitment to the rule of law is, to be charitable, immature. In such a circumstance, a counterinsurgency tool like the biometric database just as easily become predatory, allowing its possessors to take out their political or ethnic rivals and reward their allies. If the WikiLeaks disclosures put Afghans in danger, imagine what iris scans and fingerprints could mean for people who don’t want to pay bribes to crooked cops.
“That’s a policy-significant issue,” Martins admits, “Who holds the data?” According to an October memorandum signed by the U.S. and Afghan governments, the Afghans will. The U.S. might see its collected records become the “biometric component of a national ID” Martins says, good for property ownership records, establishing credit lines and other economic behavior. But first, the biometrics database will be “MOI’s data,” in the hands of the security services — the legacy of ten years of U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan.
Credit: DoD Biometrics
See Also:Tags: Ackerman in Afghanistan, Automated Biometric Information System, Bagram, Biometrics, Biometrics Automated Toolset, David Kilcullen, Detention Facility In Parwan, Handheld Interagency Identity Detection System, Mark Martins
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