NATO Forwards Biometrics

September 17, 2013
By Rita Boland

The alliance has named biometrics a critical capability shortfall to address.

NATO is investing time, talent and treasure into advancing biometrics, Col. Bernard Wulfse, Dutch Army, commander, Joint Task Force Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED), explained at the Biometric Consortium Conference. The alliance has named biometrics a critical capability shortfall to address. Key to achieving goals for biometrics is bringing all the partner nations together—not only the few currently supporting the efforts. Methods that proved useful against IEDs have applications in the biometrics realm, and lessons can be applied from the former to the latter.

Current conflicts generate from within states, not between them, so identifying enemies is difficult. More investment in rooting out the bad guys is necessary, Col. Wulfse explained. This anonymity in the physical and cyber realms makes it impossible for traditional forces to deploy their best capabilities. “Asymmetric threats … have rendered our strengths ineffective,” Col. Wulfse said.

Identity management of friend and foe can help mitigate the threats of these types of adversaries and not only in the military context. Other applications include C-IED, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, access control and more. Unlike in times past, biometrics efforts now truly have support from the highest headquarters, the colonel stated.

Despite this support, the basic challenges remain the same. The potential of biometrics for military use is not fully understood. NATO lacks harmonization in guidance, procedures and standards. Capabilities among the various armed forces are unbalanced. There is a lack of knowledge and trust in the biometrics arena, and many of the troops collecting biometric information today will not see the benefits from their work because it often takes years for the data to become a usable resource.

NATO’s vision is to have interoperable biometrics capabilities throughout its membership. The organization is increasing biometrics staff and expertise at its headquarters and has created the NATO Biometrics Work Program. Basic lines of operations for biometrics in the alliance are doctrine, legal framework, principle sharing, people and organization, equipment, and education and training. People and organization especially concern Col. Wulfse, who said that despite efforts to increase human resources, NATO needs even more personnel in this field. With budget concerns, now is not a good time to asking countries to supply these needs.

However, if NATO wants to provide biometrics information to all echelons as well as to build on past developments, it must put in place the right people. To help provide necessary information, the organization is creating a handbook for biometrics and exploring how to incorporate the topic into more courses and training. For any of the plans to work, parties must communicate more, Col. Wulfse said. Cooperation among different biometrics stakeholders is important as is explaining the value of the field to those outside of it. NATO must ensure that whatever it develops is good for the rule of law and military operations.

A whole of government approach will help maximize the effectiveness of biometrics initiatives, the colonel explained. Threats will continue to exploit weaknesses in NATO, but by ending stovepipes and cooperating, partners can present more strengths.

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