Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 8, 2006

Beyond watch lists: the technology challenge

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on February 8, 2006

Government Computer News has an excellent story this week on the problems of watch lists and the challenges associated with migrating to biometric-based identification technologies. From the article:

“Every couple of years, this idea of the ‘biometric magic bullet’ resurfaces,” said Jack Hermansen, chief executive officer of Language Analysis Systems Inc. of Herndon, Va., in an e-mail response.

“Usually, it is followed by the sobering realization that identifying individuals is a daunting task requiring an operation dedicated to training, procedures and contingency plans that overwhelm those attempting to envision how to implement such an operation.”

Hermansen said biometrics gives the intelligence community a false hope that biometric identifiers could solve the problems of finding terrorists.

The article also notes several key drawbacks of biometric technologies, including:

  • Biometrics are more difficult to collect than name records. Intelligence collection typically provides name-based information, not biometrics, and it’s difficult to collate the two.
  • Biometrics can’t prevent the entry of people you don’t know about (as is the case with name-based watch lists).

These challenges are real, but that’s no reason accept the status quo of named-based watch lists, which have proven to be very flawed in practice, most notably with the aviation no-fly list. The best long-term solution is one that integrates biometric and named-based information, and can appropriately interrelate them in specific applications, consistent with privacy laws and standards.

The article also reveals the existence of a government database for which there are no Google hits as of the date of posting:

One top-secret database the NCTC uses is called the Terrorist Identities Determinant Environment, known as TIDE. It provides a snapshot of everything known about individual terrorists.

A special advantage of TIDE, in contrast to other classified databases, is that it is classified down to the field level, [FBI special agent Michael] Resnick said.

As a result, users can filter out secret or top-secret data fields relating to a person when they distribute a record at the “For Official Use Only” level, which is equivalent to the “law enforcement confidential” classification level used by state and local agencies.

The ability to segregrate field data should be the norm in intelligence databases. Otherwise, the classification-related challenges of intelligence-sharing with state and local officials will persist.

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