John D. Woodward, Jr. at RAND has a good opinion piece published today by UPI entitled “Biometrics for Security”. The piece lays out a rationale for the use of biometrics in homeland security and describes existing projects and activities in the federal government.
The key new argument of Woodward’s piece is that these efforts are insufficiently integrated:
But the U.S. government is not yet searching data effectively because of legal and policy concerns, bureaucratic inertia, and resource constraints. To address these concerns, the government could establish a federal biometric information management system to enable processing, searching and sharing of biometric data collected by various governmental collectors.
The federal biometric system would need to ensure interoperability, data integrity and seamless processing of the data. Operationally, the system would need to ensure that biometric data is collected to meet a standard used by many agencies, processed quickly, searched accurately, and used to notify the appropriate agencies of matches.
Membership in the system would need to include stakeholders from the federal, state, tribal and local governments. Foreign governments may also need to be included.
The system would also need a policy and oversight structure to protect civil liberties and guard against abuse. The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board — whose membership consists of federal, state and local government law enforcement agencies — is a starting point for a biometric information management system. The United States could also forge ahead at the international level to ensure that biometric data is shared appropriately.
This sounds like the right vision to me, and one that would improve the flawed identification architecture that we have today, reliant on crude identifiers (e.g. a person’s name) matched against a watch list. Woodward is right to highlight the challenges associated with its adoption – the vision he describes is certainly less likely to come into being if there are abuses of the public trust and shifting goalposts in terms of government use of biometric information. But if used appropriately, biometrics can be an important tool in the broad architecture of homeland security, and current efforts do need to converge into an integrated system.