June 18, 2008
The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to adopt a high-tech method to address the ongoing problem of suspects wanted for terrorism and other crimes crossing their mutual border. At a June 8 meeting between President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and the advisor to Pakistan’s prime minister on internal affairs and narcotics control, Rehman Malik, an agreement was reached to resume a once-aborted program to install biometric identification equipment at border points (The News International [Karachi], June 9).
The biometrics program was to begin in February 2007, but was halted when Afghanistan ceased cooperating. Biometric scanning equipment will be placed at first at three points along the common border (PakTribune, June 9). Technical teams will be assigned to install the system in the interests of improving security along the border (Bakhtar News Agency, June 9).
Biometric identification covers a wide range of techniques and systems, including fingerprinting, facial recognition scans and retinal scans. The joint announcement did not specify which systems will be put in place along the Afghan/Pakistani border.
The announcement came only days after President George W. Bush issued a presidential directive authorizing the “application of biometric technologies” which will “improve the executive branch’s ability to identify and screen for persons who may pose a national security threat.” The directive is aimed at “known and suspected terrorists” and authorizes federal agencies to “use mutually compatible methods and procedures in the collection, storage, use, analysis, and sharing of biometric and associated biographic and contextual information of individuals in a lawful and appropriate manner” (NSPD 59/HSPD 24, June 5). One of the main problems in biometric recognition is the widespread use of incompatible systems, even within the U.S. federal government, thus hampering the sharing of data.
The use of biometrics is not new in Afghanistan; U.S. Marines have been using fingerprinting, iris scans and electronic databases to vet recruits to the Afghan National Police, though even here not all military databases are compatible (Wired, May 22). There are other unresolved problems with the technology, including the irreversibility of security breaches. Cambridge security engineering professor Ross Anderson warned of these dangers in a recent report to the UK House of Commons: “There is a fundamental security engineering problem with biometrics as opposed to the cryptographic keys in your chip and pin card. Once your biometrics become compromised, you cannot revoke them. It is not practical to do eye or finger transplants” (Daily Mail, June 7).
This article first appeared in the June 18, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus