Defense Biometrics:

Additional Training for Leaders and More Timely Transmission of Data Could Enhance the Use of Biometrics in Afghanistan

GAO-12-442: Published: Apr 23, 2012. Publicly Released: Apr 23, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has trained thousands of personnel on the use of biometrics since 2004, but biometrics training for leaders does not provide detailed instructions on how to effectively use and manage biometrics collection tools. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, the military services, and U.S. Central Command each has emphasized in key documents the importance of training. Additionally, the Army, Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command have trained personnel prior to deployment to Afghanistan in addition to offering training resources in Afghanistan. DOD’s draft instruction for biometrics emphasizes the importance of training leaders in the effective employment of biometrics collection, but existing training does not instruct military leaders on (1) the effective use of biometrics, (2) selecting the appropriate personnel for biometrics collection training, and (3) tracking personnel who have been trained in biometrics collection to effectively staff biometrics operations. Absent this training, military personnel are limited in their ability to collect high-quality biometrics data to better confirm the identity of enemy combatants.

Several factors during the transmission process limit the use of biometrics in Afghanistan. Among them is unclear responsibility for the completeness and accuracy of biometrics data during their transmission. As a result, DOD cannot expeditiously correct data transmission issues as they arise, such as the approximately 4,000 biometrics collected from 2004 to 2008 that were separated from their associated identities. Such decoupling renders the data useless and increases the likelihood of enemy combatants going undetected within Afghanistan and across borders. Factors affecting the timely transmission of biometrics data include the biometrics architecture with multiple servers, mountainous terrain, and mission requirements in remote areas. These factors can prevent units from accessing transmission infrastructure for hours to weeks at a time. The DOD biometrics directive calls for periodic assessments, and DOD is tracking biometrics data transmission time in Afghanistan, but DOD has not determined the viability and cost-effectiveness of reducing transmission time.

Lessons learned from U.S. military forces' experiences with biometrics in Afghanistan are collected and used by each of the military services and U.S. Special Operations Command. Military services emphasize the importance of using lessons learned to sustain, enhance, and increase preparedness to conduct future operations, but no requirements exist for DOD to disseminate existing biometrics lessons learned across the department.

Why GAO Did This Study

The collection of biometrics data, including fingerprints and iris patterns, enables U.S. counterinsurgency operations to identify enemy combatants and link individuals to events such as improvised explosive device detonations. GAO was asked to examine the extent to which (1) DOD's biometrics training supports warfighter use of biometrics, (2) DOD is effectively collecting and transmitting biometrics data, and (3) DOD has developed a process to collect and disseminate biometrics lessons learned. To address these objectives, GAO focused on the Army and to a lesser extent on the Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command, since the Army collected about 86 percent of the biometrics enrollments in Afghanistan. GAO visited training sites in the United States, observed biometrics collection and transmission operations at locations in Afghanistan, reviewed relevant policies and guidance, and interviewed knowledgeable officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD take several actions to: expand leadership training to improve employment of biometrics collection, help ensure the completeness and accuracy of transmitted biometrics data, determine the viability and cost-effectiveness of reducing transmission times, and assess the merits of disseminating biometrics lessons learned across DOD for the purposes of informing relevant policies and practices. GAO requested comments from DOD on the draft report, but none were provided.

For more information, contact Brian Lepore, 202-512-4523, leporeb@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To more fully leverage DOD's investment in biometrics, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, to implement a lessons learned dissemination process, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD stated in May 2013 that it has assessed that there is a value in a lessons learned dissemination system, which it has implemented. They stated that the Services' lessons learned systems have been linked together to make all biometric lessons learned easily discoverable by a user from any Service. Additionally, DOD has deployed the Joint Lessons Learned Information System (JLLS), an overarching lessons learned system. According to DOD, JLLS provides one-stop shopping for DOD and interagency lessons learned and can disseminate lessons learned on any topic, including biometrics. In July 2013, a DOD biometrics official said that the alternative would be to push the information out to everyone in theater and he is not sure how that could realistically be done.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that training supports warfighter use of biometrics, the Secretary of Defense should direct the military services and Special Operations Command to expand biometrics training for leaders to include the importance of selecting appropriate candidates for training.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2013, DOD stated that they had coordinated with the War Colleges in September 2012 and advocated for increased leader training on the importance of biometrics to support military operations. While the War College curriculum planners saw merit in the increased leader training, they were unable to expand the curriculum to support additional course material. According to a DOD biometric official in July 2013, they have reached out to the National Defense University and the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy about providing a seminar presentation on biometrics. If this is successful, they will try to broaden interest in the applicability of biometrics and biometrics training.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that training supports warfighter use of biometrics, the Secretary of Defense should direct the military services and Special Operations Command to expand biometrics training for leaders to include the importance of tracking who has completed biometrics training prior to deployment to help ensure appropriate assignments of biometrics collection responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2013, DOD stated that they had coordinated with the War Colleges in September 2012 and advocated for increased leader training on the importance of biometrics to support military operations. While the War College curriculum planners saw merit in the increased leader training, they were unable to expand the curriculum to support additional course material. According to a DOD biometric official in July 2013, they have reached out to the National Defense University and the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy about providing a seminar presentation on biometrics. If this is successful, they will try to broaden interest in the applicability of biometrics and biometrics training.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the completeness and accuracy of transmitted biometrics data, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, and in coordination with the military services, Special Operations Command, and Central Command, to identify and assign responsibility for biometrics data throughout the transmission process, regardless of the pathway the data travels, to include the time period between when warfighters submit their data from the biometrics collection device until the biometrics data reach DOD’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS).

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To determine the viability and cost-effectiveness of reducing transmission times for biometrics data, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, to comprehensively assess and then address, as appropriate, the factors that contribute to transmission time for biometrics data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2013, DOD stated that the Department had decided to delay publication of the Directive for biometrics because they had made significant changes to their organization for executing biometrics tasks. Provided there are no unanticipated delays in coordinating the Directive, DOD hopes to issue it no later than December 2013. In July 2013, a DOD biometrics official stated that they would like to assign the responsibility for biometrics data sooner than the end of 2013, perhaps through a separate policy.

    Recommendation: To more fully leverage DOD’s investment in biometrics, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, to assess the value of disseminating biometrics lessons learned from existing military service and combatant command lessons learned systems across DOD to inform relevant policies and practices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To more fully leverage DOD’s investment in biometrics, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, to implement a lessons learned dissemination process, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the completeness and accuracy of transmitted biometrics data, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, and in coordination with the military services, Special Operations Command, and Central Command, to identify and assign responsibility for biometrics data throughout the transmission process, regardless of the pathway the data travels, to include the time period between when warfighters submit their data from the biometrics collection device until the biometrics data reach DOD's Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS).

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2013, DOD stated that the Department had decided to delay publication of the Directive for biometrics because they had made significant changes to their organization for executing biometrics tasks. Provided there are no unanticipated delays in coordinating the Directive, DOD hopes to issue it no later than December 2013. In July 2013, a DOD biometrics official stated that they would like to assign the responsibility for biometrics data sooner than the end of 2013, perhaps through a separate policy.

    Recommendation: To more fully leverage DOD's investment in biometrics, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, through the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, to assess the value of disseminating biometrics lessons learned from existing military service and combatant command lessons learned systems across DOD to inform relevant policies and practices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD stated in May 2013 that it has assessed that there is a value in a lessons learned dissemination system, which it has implemented. They stated that the Services' lessons learned systems have been linked together to make all biometric lessons learned easily discoverable by a user from any Service. Additionally, DOD has deployed the Joint Lessons Learned Information System (JLLS), an overarching lessons learned system. According to DOD, JLLS provides one-stop shopping for DOD and interagency lessons learned and can disseminate lessons learned on any topic, including biometrics. In July 2013, a DOD biometrics official said that the alternative would be to push the information out to everyone in theater and he is not sure how that could realistically be done.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that training supports warfighter use of biometrics, the Secretary of Defense should direct the military services and Special Operations Command to expand biometrics training for leaders to include the effective use of biometrics in combat operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2013, DOD stated that they had coordinated with the War Colleges in September 2012 and advocated for increased leader training on the importance of biometrics to support military operations. While the War College curriculum planners saw merit in the increased leader training, they were unable to expand the curriculum to support additional course material. According to a DOD biometric official in July 2013, they have reached out to the National Defense University and the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy about providing a seminar presentation on biometrics. If this is successful, they will try to broaden interest in the applicability of biometrics and biometrics training.

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