Worries about Iraq's biometric database

Published 26 August 2009

The U.S. biometric database in Iraq, now containing identification information on more than 2.5 million Iraqis, has been helpful to U.S. troops in identifying the bad guys and thwarting acts of terror; as the U.S. forces prepare to leave Iraq, worries grow that the same database may be used for monitoring critics of the regime and for political repression

Fingerprints, iris scans, and other forms of biometric identification enabled U.S. troops to catch more than 400 “high-value individuals” in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, Lisa Swan said. “We’ve been very successful at catching bad guys,” said Swan, who is deputy director of the U.S. Army’s Biometric Task Force.

After several years of compiling vast biometric databases that now contain identification information on more than 2.5 million Iraqis, the U.S. military is sold on the technology.

Fingerprints and irises are checked before Iraqis are allowed past checkpoints. Biometric identification is required before Iraqi and Afghan employees are allowed to enter U.S. bases. “We take biometrics on all detainees to check and see where we might have encountered them before,” Swan said.

Detainees’ fingerprints and iris scans are checked against databases that contain the biometric identities of bomb builders and terrorists. There have been numerous matches.

Defense News’s William Matthews writes that biometric checks have also identified insurgents among the applicants for admission to the Iraqi Police Academy, the Biometrics Task Force reports. They have even turned up Iraqis who have U.S. felony records.

Fingerprints lifted from bomb fragments and ambush sites are added to the database in the hope that some day they will match with prints of suspects in custody.

U.S. troops have ordered Iraqi men, women and children out of their villages and recorded their fingerprints and iris images before letting them return. “It has proven to reduce violence,” Swan said. “It keeps the bad guys out.”

The use of biometrics has clearly thwarted security breaches and helped prevent unwanted activities by the enemy,” the task force asserts.

Risks for ID owners
As U.S. forces prepare to turn more responsibility over to the Iraqi military, however, the biometric databases have begun to raise concerns. “There is precedent for identification systems being used in very bad ways,” said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Identification cards in Rwanda that included photos and listed tribal affiliation were used by rival Tutsis and Hutus to identify their foes.

They led to killing by machete,” Harper said. Similar identification and slaughter “could easily happen in Iraq” if the U.S. military turns its databases over to Iraqis, he said.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) raised the same concern two years ago in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “The massive aggregation of secret files on Iraqis, linked to permanent biometric identifiers, creates an unprecedented human rights risk that