I recently spoke with Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center EPIC, who told me about a story that has not received enough attention. It involves the Pentagon’s use of a new system of biometric identification in Iraq that EPIC fears “could lead to further reprisals and killings.”
Last month, USA Today ran an article on a new system, to be deployed by the U.S. military, that profiles suspected insurgents in Iraq. According to this story, “U.S. troops are creating a database with hundreds of thousands of records of Iraqi adult males, which they can use to conduct quick background checks and identify potential troublemakers.” The paper also reported that American personnel are taking scans of individuals’ fingerprints and irises at homes, workplaces, and checkpoints. Suspected insurgents are added to a general database that is administered by the U.S. military. “The biggest problem we have in Iraq is separating insurgents from the population,” Owen West, who served two Iraq tours as a Marine major, told the newspaper. “Once you can identify someone, you can begin to crack the insurgent network as the police would crack a gang.”
Rotenberg found the USA Today story troubling given abuses of identity systems in past conflicts in South Africa and Rwanda–where official identification cards contained ethnic information that was used to identify people to be killed. He believes the Defense Department should develop guidelines for the military’s use of biometric systems, including privacy and accountability controls if it is turned over to the Iraqi government. “We recognize the strategic military importance of identifying threats to American military personnel,” EPIC, Privacy International, and Human Rights Watch wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on July 27. “However, these tactics also strip away a substantial privacy measure for Iraqi citizens in the midst of a conflict that flows from deep religious and ethnic division. Specifically, the biometric identification of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd populations vastly increases the possibility that this information may be misused at some future point.”
According to Rotenberg, the company that is “pretty much ground zero for the surveillance industry” is L-1 Identity Solutions. L-1’s board of directors includes some powerful former government officials: Louis Freeh, the former FBI Director, George Tenet, former CIA Director, and Admiral James Loy, former deputy undersecretary of the Transportation Security Administration. Biometric identification is clearly big business: the company issued a press release earlier this year saying it had won up to $71 million from the U.S. Army for handheld biometric recognition devices and another announcing a deal to provide the Pentagon with “Automated Biometric Identification System[s]” for “broad use in the accurate and fast identification of individuals.” In addition, the company’s website says that thousands of its “mobile iris and multi-modal devices” have been deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba, Bosnia, and other “places of global conflict.”
There’s more on the story at EPIC’s website.