Biometrics: A Useful Tool for Homeland Security?

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Biometrics: A Useful Tool for Homeland Security?
By: Rob Wise
@csis_isp

In recent years, the U.S. military has used groundbreaking biometric identification technologies in Afghanistan and elsewhere, employing iris scanners, fingerprint readers, and other devices to help differentiate friends from foes and map insurgent activity. The ability to compare an unknown individual’s biological features against those of insurgents and criminals has allowed the United States to better screen those attempting to enter secure installations, identify the makers of improvised explosive devices, recapture escaped prisoners, and, in the most famous instance, reportedly confirm the death of Osama bin Laden.

Even as U.S. involvement in Afghanistan winds down, the use of biometrics for a wide range of applications—including for homeland security—is poised to increase dramatically. The Department of Homeland Security already employs biometrics for a limited number of purposes, yet as the technology continues to advance, a wide range of agencies and organizations may turn to biometrics for purposes ranging from employment verification to identifying potential terrorists in a crowd to managing access to secure data.

However, these technological advances bring with them a host of questions, many of which have yet to be fully addressed. Which biometric technologies hold the greatest potential, and how and where might they be employed? The U.S. government has been an early adopter, but private industry and foreign governments are rapidly moving to incorporate biometrics in new and innovative ways. Apple now includes a fingerprint scanner on the iPhone, and governments in Asia and Africa are using biometrics to assist in everything from combating welfare fraud to reducing election tampering. There are also questions about what legal frameworks should govern these technologies and the data they generate, as well as how privacy concerns can be addressed. Answering such questions will be vital if biometrics are to reach their full potential as a tool for homeland security, law enforcement, and a variety of other purposes.

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