Leaving no finger unscanned

The US military endorses biometric screening plan for every living Afghan

Since September, Afghanistan has been the only country in the world to fingerprint and photograph all travellers who pass through Kabul International Airport, arriving and departing.

A handful of other countries fingerprint arriving foreigners, but no country has ever sought to gather biometric data on everyone who comes and goes, whatever their nationality. Nor do the Afghan authorities plan to stop there: their avowed goal is to fingerprint, photograph and scan the irises of every living Afghan.

It is a goal heartily endorsed by the US military, which has already gathered biometric data on two million Afghans who have been encountered by soldiers on the battlefield, or who have just applied for a job with the coalition military or its civilian contractors.

The Kabul airport programme is also financed by the United States, with money and training provided by the US embassy. Americans, like all other travelers, are subject to it.

"Some of the embassies are quite exercised about it," one Western diplomat said. Such a programme would be illegal if carried out in the home countries of most of the occupying coalition. The United States and Japan fingerprint all foreigners on arrival; South Korea plans to start doing so in January. Officials at the US embassy declined to comment specifically on the programme; a spokesman for the department of homeland security denied it had anything to do with it.

Biometric data is also being gathered by the US military at all of Afghanistan's eight major border crossings, in a program that it plans to hand over to the Afghan government at the end of this month. So far, that programme gathers only random samples at border crossings, because traffic is so heavy, but since it began in April, it has already added 200,000 people to the military's biometrics database.

The military wants to use biometrics to identify known or suspected insurgents, and to prevent infiltration of military bases arid Afghan security forces. "The technology removes the mask of anonymity," said Capt Kevin Aandahl of the US Navy, a spokesman for the military's detainee operations, which include the biometrics programme.

Gathering the data does not stop at Afghanistan's borders, however, since the military shares all of the biometrics it collects with the US department of justice and the department of homeland security through interconnected databases.

Even the civilian-run airport program collecting fingerprints and photographs feeds its information into computers at the US embassy, as well as at the Afghan ministry of the interior and its intelligence agency, the national directorate of security, according to Mohammad Yaqub Rasuli, the head of Kabul international airport.

Rasuli acknowledges that the airport screening has had a rocky start. "We are happy with
the system, but the airlines and the passengers are not that happy," he said.

Laborious process

Delays of up to two hours have resulted from the screening, which takes at least three minutes per passenger. With six screening stations at most, the process becomes laborious; so many travelers recently have been missing their flights that the airlines routinely delay takeoffs.

Reporters at the airport have on several occasions witnessed immigration officers just waving through some passengers as crowds backed up; others were allowed to skip their thumbprints to speed things along. One man had his hand fingerprinted upside down, with nails facing the scanner.

"It is some sort of cultural deficiency," Rasuli said. "After six months, everyone will be happy with it.” The next step will be a national identity card with biometric data on every citizen, he said. "A lot of our problems will be solved with this.''

As with the military's biometric data, information on each person is fed into a computer to find those who are on terrorist watch lists, have outstanding criminal warrants or even are just businessmen under investigation.

In the first two and a half months, how many suspects have been apprehended with the new system, Rasuli was asked. "None," he said.
The military has done somewhat better with its programme, according to Col Fred Washington, director of the US army's biometrics task force. Since 2007, when biometric collection began in Afghanistan, biometrics have been used to identify 3,000 suspects on either watch list 1 or watch list 2, the US military's two most serious classifications for possible insurgents or terrorists. In many cases, fingerprints found on bomb remains have identified the bomb maker, he said.

“People are accepting it because they know it's making their country secure," Colonel Washington said. Mohammad Musa Mahmoodi, executive director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said, "Given the circumstances in Afghanistan, fighting terrorism and insurgency, government can take measures to protect its citizens.”
“To be honest, we've got more important problems to worry about,”  he said.

Civil liberties groups abroad are more concerned. "The situation in Afghanistan is unprecedented, but I worry that we could move into that situation in the United States without even realising we're doing it," said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

There have been some signs of Afghan sensitivities as well. A military-financed programme to gather biometric data in the city of Kandahar in 2010, during the push to control insurgency there, was so unpopular that President Hamid Karzai promised local elders to have it canceled, which it was, according to Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the governor in Kandahar province.

And the Afghan government has yet to pass legislation providing for the biometric screening of the entire population, which it has announced as part of its plans for a national identity card.

As a result, the military has not conducted wholesale sweeps of communities to gather biometrics, Colonel Washington said, although in just the past year 12,000 soldiers have been trained to use the BAT — the biometric automated toolset.

While the BAT equipment is portable, it is not always easy to use, and the results can sometimes be unpredictable. A reporter from ‘The New York Times’, an American of Norwegian rather than Afghan extraction, voluntarily submitted to a test screening with the BAT system. (‘The International Herald Tribune’ is the global edition of ‘The Times’.)

After his fingerprints and iris scans were entered into the BAT's armoured laptop, an unexpected "hit" popped up on the screen, along with the photograph of a heavily bearded Afghan. The "hit" identified the reporter as "Haji Daro Shar Mohammed," who is on terrorist watch list 4, with this note: "Deny Access, Do Not Hire, Subject Poses a Threat"

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