18 September 2019

The Special Operations Forces are using biometric data and online sources in ISR activities

Daniel Ilie

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) is the integrated process (intelligence and operations) by which are collected information from many sources (sensors), and then transformed into acknowledgements (explicit, tacit and implicit), to be used when making a decision and, then, analyzed as quick as possible to support military commanders’ decisions, like the ones from the SOF.

Image source: Mediafax

The video surveillance cameras with face recognition, the access control systems and the biometric tally data, cameras for license plate recognition, fingerprints, iris and retina recognition, audio digital recordings and others are biometric devices that can be smart and which can be, after interconnected through Internet of Things (IoT[1], important intelligence sources (sensors) within the process and the ISR systems.

A biometric device is a security identification and authentication device. Such devices use automated methods of verifying or recognizing the identity of a living person based on a physiological or behavioral characteristic. These characteristics include fingerprints, facial images, iris and voice recognition.

These characteristics are biometric data and can refer to digital fingerprints, face’s structure, the iris model, retina model, audio print or DNA data, to be used independently or collectively for biometric identification. These are information about an individual, but can also be the base for creating a connection between a person and a certain information.

Everyone knows how these verification and recognition methods of one’s identity are used for ID use purposes, providing security on airports, when crossing borders, personnel’s access and tally across governmental organizations or corporations, as the use potential of these emergent technologies is huge. However, when talking about law enforcement, the use of such biometric data may be risky in terms of the accredited people and needs supplementary protection measures for their rights protection.

As far as I know, American soldiers from the special operations forces (SOF) have used biometric devices for secure electronic enrollment kit SEEK II (a four-pound ruggedized computer with a built-in fingerprint scanner, digital camera, and iris scanner) in the theatre of operations from Afghanistan and it seems that it was also used for the positive identification of Osama Bin Laden’s body, after its elimination or capture, on Pakistan’s territory, one of the most wanted terrorist on earth. The device is accredited by FBI to get even the rolled prints (where the finger is rolled across the surface to get a more complete print), in addition to "flat" prints.

Although such methods can be less exposed to theft than using certain passwords, these can still be hacked. Some face and iris recognition devices were scammed by photos, the digital fingerprints can be collected, imitated and used to scam the fingerprint scanners and, recently, criminal groups have started to use artificial intelligence to replicate audio recordings to get financial funds.

 It seems that, along with the data bases that are archived, these information can also be manipulated, given that matching one individual’s profile with the data already existent in a data basis is based on statistics. When lacking of a proper legal framework and policies and agreed procedures to protect the biometric data against the illicit use or abuse, this can definitely raise questions and concerns in terms of the legal recognition of one’s identification authenticity.

How can biometric data or online activity help the identification of terrorist elements and the effectiveness of the intelligence support for SOF?

When it comes to terrorism prevention and combat, in all its forms and manifestations, or to the fight against organized crimes, biometric data, along with other criminal research methods, can help the investigators, attorneys or analysts a lot when identifying the connections between a person and certain activities, events, places, objects or other people. And the biometric data exchange is essential for the cross-border frauds investigation and for terrorists’ identification.

The asymmetrical conflicts, the global war against terrorism, the fight against organized crime have all changed the priorities in collecting information and developing intelligence activities in general. Currently, functions and collection systems, the process and dissemination of information like the ISR are being used to get information, surveil and look after terrorists, criminals, clans, fanatics, guerilla elements, small communities, bootlegs, illegal armament and improvised explosive devices traffic.

Terrorism is still one of the most serious threats against global peace and security, and fighting it requires collective national, regional and international efforts, based on the international law and United Nations Carta. To that end, in December 2017, after the 8148th meetings, the UN Security Council has adopted the Resolution no.2396, by which is calling on all member states to develop and implement biometric data collection systems, which could include fingerprints, photographs, facial recognition, and other relevant identifying biometric data, in order to responsibly and properly identify terrorists, including foreign terrorist fighters, in compliance with domestic law and international human rights law.

Determined to contribute to improving the effectiveness of this threat’s combat collective efforts, the UN Security Council is encouraging the member states to exchange such biometric data responsibly between the member states, INTERPOL and other relevant international bodies, according to the domestic and international right, to intensify and hasten, in due course, the relevant operational and financial exchange regarding terrorists or terrorist systems’ pattern of life.

As for the use of the military option in fighting terrorism, in order to provide the success of the special operations, for example, the direct actions to prohibit, eliminate, capture, rescue of the personnel, materials or information, they need a detailed support with actionable intelligence, to provide SOF a better understanding of the possible enemies, as well as the operational environment where they are about to execute such operations.

Intelligence support’s uniqueness for the special operations is the relevant, authenticity, integrity, quantity and characteristic of the information provided and is related including to collecting, exploiting and disseminating the information about terrorist organizations, their personnel, their goods and the goods the terrorist networks have available, their activities, things that the SOF need to properly execute surgical actions and, eventually, get the expected effect form the designated or occasional target.

As for the human targets across the “human hunting” (humans of terrorist/insurgent systems) in terrorism or counter-insurgency combat operations, this targeting process (following the NATO language[2]) can be more effective by using biometric data or individual profiles for the Find Fix Finish Exploit Analyze Disseminate (F3EAD). The collection and exploitation of biometric data and online activity of important targets (information that people are sharing about their daily life) will be included in the collection of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance plans.

Noticing that the opportunity to get, analyze and use disseminate information voluntarily in the public field is getting better and better as people’s life is becoming more and more interconnected with digital devices, the members of the Joint Special Operations University-JSOU have started to think of new ways to create the ISR functions and systems and have proposed the “New generation of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance” to be the one of the 2020 research topics.

American SOF concerns and priorities in collection, process and dissemination of intelligence

Alike previous years, the Joint Special Operations University in the US has recently published the list of SOF research topics for 2020.

The topics are addressing the priorities of the US Special Operations Component Command-SOCOL and it focuses on how the intelligence, technology and innovation confluence (artificial intelligence, machine learning, intelligence operations and big data) are raising a series of important challenges and are affecting the SOF community’s issues. These were verified, before being published, by the USSOCOM and the command components of the special operations in the theatres of operations to make sure there were addressed the emerging topics.

The five operational priorities of the USSOCOM command are: compete and win for the nation, preserve and grow readiness, innovate for future threats, advance partnerships, strengthen our force and family.

One of the main research topics across the first priorities “Compete and win for the nation” refers to the “New ISR generation”. Experts have noticed that people are wittingly or unwittingly self-profiling, volunteering their biometric data and establishing patterns of life that can be potentially exposed with or without their permission (user agreement vs. hacking). This modern reality presents the opportunity for new ways to conceive of ISR at multiple levels.

We expect researchers to explore and identify the doctrine, capabilities, technique and procedures to make SOF more effective, and researchers’ results to be used to inform the policy makers, military experts and, not least, the public about the issues and challenges the SOF community is facing.

As for the new types of systems and ISR functions, the emerging questions are:

- to what extent can social media analysis provide verifiable and reliable data for measuring preferences and attitudes at the operational to strategic levels?

- what are the weaknesses inherent with relying on social media as an indicator?

-what kinds of sociocultural analysis are necessary prior to utilizing social media analytics in order to make sense of the data?

- at the operational to tactical levels, how might facial recognition and other biometric indicators be captured and potentially utilized for ISR purposes?

-what are the vulnerabilities in digital device biometrics that could expose SOF to potential harm?

- what evolving cyber-enabled experiences might be utilized to gauge sentiments or serve as useful indicators of measures of performance and measures of effect during SOF engagement strategies?

-what can the Internet of Things provide in terms of sensing patterns, trends, concerns, and potential crises and what would its limitations be?

The methods and techniques of collecting and exploiting biometric data, the following collection and exploitation of equipment, media information and documents gathered during the operations (Sensitive Site Exploitation), as well as criminal research technique and methods continues to be US SOF’s interests.

We are talking about the technologies used to collect, analyze and disseminate different physical parameters that could be used to quickly identify (and reduce the fake alarms rate) the personnel and activities inside a sensitive site (the deployment place of the special operation) by exploiting personal data, documents and/or electronic data gathered in situ.

Instead of conclusions

Biometric data and online activity can be important intelligence sources for the ISR processes developed by SOF

Some time ago, non-state actors like the private companies Strategic Communications Laboratories and Cambridge Analytica have collected and exploited a great number of information on the Facebook users to create profiles for voters and develop a software to foresee and influence their decisions during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, as well as during the pro-Brexit campaign, without this social media’s access. Other companies, such as Google, Apple or Amazon are collecting, processing, and some of them even stocking, for commercial purposes, facial and voice recognition data (devices and software) and, although the beneficiary of such technical options can simply choose not to activate or use them, no one guarantees if the personal data which goes to a third party, or is publicly collected (like surveilling cameras) will not be uploaded and used for malicious purposes. There are just things that are raising concerns and controversies.

However, lacking of transparency and regulations, such vulnerabilities and risks can negatively affect the intelligence support for SOF and can also compromise the special operations’ effect if they will not be carefully and timely identified and addressed, as soon as possible, when planning and making a decision.

Translated by Andreea Soare


[1] Internet of Things- a technological revolution, which is considered to be the future of computers and communication, and their development depends on the dynamic technical innovation in a series of important fields, from wireless sensors to nanotechnology. Connections are multiplied (objects and, potentially, humans beings that are interconnected) and are creating a completely new dynamic network of networks –an internet of things. http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/APCITY/UNPAN021972.pdf