By Spencer Ackerman | Wired | Dec. 20, 2010
In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops use handheld devices to take iris scans and thumb prints off of detainees and put them in vast databases to distinguish insurgents from civilians. Now your local cops are getting in on the action.
L-1 Identity Solutions, a four-year-old company, makes the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection System (HIIDE), a mobile device that digitally records someone’s iris, fingerprint and facial characteristics “to create a comprehensive database on the enrolled subject.” The tool, which has earned high marks in Iraq and Afghanistan, is marketed to cops, as a way to avoid taking suspects to booking stations, “where waiting time for results could be anywhere from three hours to three days” for a positive ID on warrant-jumpers.
Military technology has a tendency to trickle down to civilian applications, as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this story on the internet that Darpa helped create. Usually that takes time, but police departments across the country are fielding tools that the military developed to keep tabs on insurgents are now in place to see if you’ve got any outstanding arrest warrants. That’s what the Washington Post found for the latest installment of its series on the expanding surveillance state: Arizona’s Maricopa County, for instance, keeps a database sized at “9,000 biometric digital mug shots a month.”
Here’s how the proliferation of biometrics works, as the Post discovers. The Department of Homeland Security wants more data points on potential homegrown terrorists. Through Federal-state law enforcement “fusion centers,” federal grants help finance law enforcement’s acquisition of ID tools like HIIDE, as well as powerful surveillance cameras and sensors. Police incorporate them into their regular law-enforcement duties, picking up information on suspects and using them to cut down on the time it takes to figure out who’s evading arrest.
As the military learned, positive identification depends on having a large data set of known insurgents. Cops and the feds are going just as broad. Fingerprint information from crime records gets sent to a FBI datafarm in West Virginia, where they “mingle” with prints from detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Military and Homeland Security officials can search through the FBI database for possible connections to terrorists.
It’s unclear if there are minimization procedures in place to void someone’s fingerprints in the datafarm after a distinct period of time, or how serious a crime has to be to merit a bioscan getting sent to West Virginia. And in many cases, the technology at use here just accelerates the speed at which, say, prints from a police station get sent to the FBI, rather than making the difference between inclusion at the datafarm and remaining at the police station. But it certainly looks like there’s not such a lag time between tech developed for a complex insurgency finding applications for crime-fighting at home.