NATO establishes biometric database, US military has it already

The U.S. Department of Defense stores biometric data on more than seven million people, mostly from war zones. Refugee organizations also collect millions of facial images, irises and fingerprints of people seeking protection. They may also find their way to law enforcement agencies.

The United States military has a database of millions of facial images, iris photos, fingerprints, and DNA data. This „Automated Biometric Information System“ (ABIS) currently stores 7.4 million identities, reports the news magazine OneZero. The information is the result of a request under the Freedom of Information Act and is based on a presentation by an employee in the Ministry of Defense.

The database is maintained by the military biometrics agency and data is collected in countries where the US military is active. The system is intended to identify and track down terror suspects and their contact persons, biometric traces are taken from captured or killed opponents, among others. According to OneZero, data also originates from voter registrations, employment relationships or other information that the military obtains. Allied soldiers are also recorded.

Worldwide cross-linked watchlist

ABIS also allows individuals to be entered in a „Biometrically Enabled Watch List“ (BEWL). It can be connected to police or intelligence systems and will issue an alarm if a person crosses a border or enters a police checkpoint. The system can also be used via mobile devices to compare fingerprints, irises or faces.

Currently, more than 213,000 people are to be stored in the BEWL. In the first half of 2019, according to a presentation by the US Department of Defense, 4,467 hits were obtained using the watchlist, of which about two thirds were enemy forces in war zones.

According to the report, ABIS is connected to the biometric database of the FBI, which in turn is linked to other local police databases. US authorities are therefore also working on a network with the biometric database of the Department of Homeland Security. In this way, ABIS could be expanded into a worldwide civil-military information system. European police and intelligence authorities also request biometric data from the responsible police authorities and the US military.

NATO system with or without DNA data?

A year ago, NATO member states also decided to set up a biometric database. Under the name „NATO Automated Biometric Identification System“ (NABIS), data on the face, iris and fingers are to be stored there. The German Ministry of Defence confirms the details, but does not mention any DNA data.

According to official information, the system is still under development, but according to NATO a prototype was already tested in 2014 in the joint „Unified Vision“ manoeuvre. In a paper, the US military explained the technical specifications of the ABIS at that time.

In a later version, hands and veins, handwriting, speech samples, keystrokes or the gait of persons could also be collected and processed as biometric information. This data is of fundamental interest to NATO and its related forces.

Connecting international police organisations

It is unclear which manufacturers are commissioned with the development of NABIS. The NATO Communications and Information Agency, based in The Hague, is responsible for the project. It is conceivable that NABIS will build on the ABIS of the US military or use its technical infrastructure. According to OneZero, the US system will be set up by the American company Leidos, which received 150 million dollars for it and has further US companies as contractors.

Ideal Innovations Incorporated is accordingly in charge of a database in Afghanistan. This is probably the HAMAH system, a similar data collection on „battlefield data“ or „battlefield information“ operated by the US military under the name VENLIG in Iraq. The police agency Europol and Interpol are also integrated into the two systems via the US military and, if required, supply data on stored persons. If „references to Germany are established“, the Federal Government also requests the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) to provide information available there.

HAMAH and VENLIG may have been the forerunners of the new US biometrics file, at least OneZero writes that most of the seven million identities come from Afghanistan and Iraq. Also in Operation „Gallant Phoenix“, the US military collects biometric information in Syria and Iraq. EU documents show that Europol is also involved, as is the Federal Intelligence Service from Germany.

UN Refugee Commissioner runs own system

In addition to the military, secret services and police, aid organisations also collect biometric data on a large scale. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates a system for the identification, registration and management of persons seeking protection in 66 countries. This „Biometric Identity Management System“ (BIMS) also records children from the age of five with facial photos, fingerprints of both hands and images of both irises.

The UNHCR biometrics system is centrally managed and mirrored on local servers in areas without the Internet. Their location is secret for security reasons. Software from Accenture, Greenbit and IriTech is used to scan iris and fingerprints. According to the German Foreign Ministry, there are currently 8.2 million adults and children in the file. Biometric information on 11.4 million beneficiaries from 32 countries is stored in a similar database of the United Nations World Food Programme.

The information on refugees can also end up in the police or military biometric files via detours. In „reasonable circumstances“, such as when individuals are under investigation or are to testify (with their consent) as witnesses, the UNHCR transfers personal data to law enforcement agencies or courts. This is done at the request of the authorities or on the UNHCR’s own initiative. The data can also be passed on to avert danger, for example to prevent criminal offences or a threat to public security. However, the authorities should ensure that the data is not used for any other purpose.

Image: Marines take photos of civilians for a „Biometrics Automated Toolset“ system (all rights reserved US Department of Defense).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.