Author shares military biometrics deployment lessons to address industry shortfall

April 18, 2017 - 

While working as a U.S. Army officer in the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) biometrics organization, William Buhrow had a conversation with a frustrated member of the military in Afghanistan. The guides to use and planning considerations available for other systems used by the military did not exist for biometrics, he discovered. This realization prompted Buhrow to take on a role as an advocate for broader understanding of the non-technical aspects of large scale biometric deployments, and to write Biometrics in Support of Military Operations: Lessons from the Battlefield, which was recently released by CRC Press.

Rapid advances in biometrics provide the promise of major benefits, but information about how to achieve them is often not shared. Reasons for this include the protection by various stakeholders of information that is considered strategic or proprietary. Because many biometric technologies see their first field use in military, law enforcement, and border control environments, layers of organizational and legal restrictions govern what those involved in solution deployment can share about their experience.

Buhrow spent 30 years with the U.S. Army and Department of Defense, which gives him extensive experience and a unique perspective on challenging, large-scale deployments of biometric collection and identification systems. Biometrics in Support of Military Operations: Lessons from the Battlefield is drawn from the knowledge he gained working with biometric systems in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book presents insights drawn from and for military uses, but many of the lessons it contains are applicable to other uses, including by border control, law enforcement, and large-scale operations in remote or geographically challenging locations.

The first resource Buhrow wrote for biometric deployments was U.S. Army Commander’s Guide to Biometrics in Afghanistan, which the military published for internal use to provide much-needed guidance at the operator level. It goes beyond the basic instructions for equipment use, which had been the only support material available DoD-wide for military personnel tasked with important, but often difficult roles in identifying people in remote locations.

In an exclusive interview with Biometric Update, Buhrow, who is currently Biometrics Subject Matter Expert with CSRA Inc., said that the focus is often on technology, to the extent that other considerations receive little or no attention, until they are already causing frustrations.

“When you’re doing large scale operations it’s very, very complicated, and there are a lot of things that need to come into play to make it really work,” Buhrow says. “I was never convinced that there was a centralized focus on developing those aspects of the biometrics.”

Developing those other aspects has been Buhrow’s mission since he retired from the military in 2012. Biometrics in Support of Military Operations: Lessons from the Battlefield provides information about the various considerations for large-scale biometric deployments beyond the collection and verification technology, including legal and privacy requirements, communications infrastructure, and strategy. The information is drawn from extensive experience in Iraq, where bases tended to be large, and relatively few operations were far from them, and Afghanistan, where bases were smaller and remote, and infrastructure was minimal.

These insights are often critical to successful deployment, but many customers have little or no access to them, Buhrow says, dependent as they are for objective information on vendors and previous customers. Ultimately, this makes it vital to the biometrics industry that the lessons are learned, including those from the battlefield, so that success stories can encourage further adoption.

“These kinds of programs need to be supported and pushed by the industry so that the level of awareness catches up to the level of technology development,” Buhrow says.

He sees organizations currently struggling unnecessarily to achieve the benefits they had hoped for from large-scale biometric deployments. Buhrow recounts a U.S. Border Control Officer saying their watch lists were too challenging to keep up to date, a full decade after similar systems were implemented in Afghanistan. Buhrow is disappointed with the job generally done by organizations of collecting and sharing information about the various aspects of successful deployment, as well as with companies in the industry, which have focused on technology to the detriment of other important areas.

“From folks at the research level everybody’s searching for the next sexy modality, you’ve got research into things like body odour. What I don’t see are people researching things like data compression; how do I package the data so that I can push what in many cases are heavy packets of data across what may not be optimal communication networks. How do I allow for those kind of data exchanges for things like watch lists, that don’t require me to pull in a massive amount of data, much of which is the same information, but just updating those specific pieces of data that might have changed? There’s a lot that can be done on the development and research side, but everybody’s looking for that next sexy piece of hardware, or matching algorithm, not things like how do we facilitate the actual operational use of these technologies.”

Buhrow does see some progress, as industry stakeholders come together with initiatives like the Biometrics Institute, which recently published a best practices guide for privacy considerations.

“I think there’s a role in advocating and facilitating the development, at the industry level, of best practices,” Buhrow says. “I think there also needs to a greater education level.”

This same motivation led Buhrow to develop a course he currently teaches for George Mason University titled “Identity Analysis Applications,” part of its Masters of Forensic Science program. It focuses on elements that need to be in place, such as legal and privacy structures and communication infrastructure, in order for biometric technology to be applied effectively.

“We need to divert the sole attention from the shiny object of the technology, and look deeper into what we are trying to accomplish, and what are all the facets that need to be addressed before we implement a biometric solution.”

Biometrics in Support of Military Operations: Lessons from the Battlefield is currently available from CRC Press.

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About Chris Burt

Chris Burt is a writer and contributor to Biometric Update. He has also written nonfiction about information technology, dramatic arts, sports culture, and fantasy basketball, as well as fiction about a doomed astronaut. He lives in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @AFakeChrisBurt."