Intelligence: DNA Becomes A Weapon


June 6, 2015: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is testing two portable DNA analysis devices overseas. These two devices each cost about $250,000 and one weighs 55 kg (120 pounds) and the other 91 kg (200 pounds). Both require near constant power because some of the chemicals used for testing must be refrigerated. Most importantly these devices can analyze a tissue sample of DNA in 90 minutes. Previously the analysis had to be sent back to the United States or some other nation with classified DNA analysis facilities and this took over a week, sometimes over a month. This much speedier DNA analysis has made it possible to catch some bomb builders or others involved in terrorism because of the DNA samples (taken from bomb fragments or someplace just raided) could be analyzed and compared to suspected terrorists in the area (or not) and suspects could be captured (or killed) before they got away. The portable DNA analyzers were designed to be used by the usual SOCOM personnel found overseas (bright but few with training as lab technicians) and this was successful as well.

The United States has a large and growing library of data on actual and suspected terrorists and supporters. A major innovation was the tremendous increase in the use of biometric (fingerprints, iris, facial recognition, DNA) identification. After 2003 the U.S. developed tools that enabled combat troops to use biometrics on the battlefield. The main tool was called SEEK (Secure Electronic Enrolment Kit). This is a portable electronic toolkit that collects biometrics from people anywhere and at any time. This included fingerprint scans, eye (iris) scans, and digital photos of suspects and later DNA samples. All this eventually ends up in a master database, which eventually contained data on millions of terrorists, suspected terrorists, their supporters, and other "persons of interest." Troops in the field can carry part of that database with them in their SEEK kits, so that wanted people can quickly be identified and captured. This is what the American commandos did on the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid. While DNA tests are the best form of ID, if you have fingerprints, iris scans, and a photo you are nearly as certain. Even just fingerprints and the face scan/photo is pretty convincing. But often all you have is DNA and that’s where the portable DNA analyzers come in.

In Afghanistan the government used SEEK kits to collect data on nearly two million Afghans, so these people could be issued very secure (hard to fake) ID cards. For the government, this makes it more difficult for criminals, Taliban, and Islamic radicals in general to infiltrate the government or just operate freely. The U.S. has long been collecting biometrics from those they arrest or otherwise encounter and want to positively identify. This data makes it easier to figure out who is naughty and who is not.

All this began during the war in Iraq. At the same time the Department of Defense adopted many practices that major police departments had long employed to track down criminals. Troops in Iraq, especially reservists who were police, noted that the war in Iraq was mostly police work (seeking individual terrorists among a large population of innocent civilians). One of the more useful techniques for this is biometrics. That is, every time the troops encounter a "person of interest," they don't just take their name and address, they also use SEEK to collect the biometric data. The fingerprints are particularly useful because when they are stored electronically you can search and find out immediately if the print you have just lifted from somewhere else, like off the fragment of a car bomb, is in there or not. The digital photos, from several angles, are also useful because these pictures are run through software that creates a numeric "ID" that can be used by security cameras to look for someone specific, or for finding someone from a witness description. Other nations are digitizing their mug shots, and this enables these people to be quickly checked against those in the American database.

Often bomb makers were found because of fingerprints or DNA samples lifted from bomb fragments. Later raids frequently encounter suspicious characters but no evidence that justifies an arrest, until the fingerprints are checked against the bomb maker and SEEK database. The database of IED fragments were also checked for design techniques, which can indicate which individual or team built a particular bomb. This use of fingerprints led to the identification of over a thousand people involved in making bombs. At least a hundred were put on terrorist watch lists and many were eventually arrested or killed. This included several Iraqis who made it to the U.S. as refugees (along with over 70,000 other Iraqis). These men were arrested and prosecuted.

It only takes about two minutes per subject to use SEEK to take the biometric data, so any suspicious characters are quickly added to the master database. Now, after several years of this, raiding parties know to grab any guy who seems to panic at the sight of the biometrics equipment coming out. The terrorists know that biometrics is bad news for them and they fear it. Combat troops now get training on how to use the biometrics gear and everyone now accepts that this stuff is a powerful weapon in the war against terrorists. Adapting this expertise to creating very difficult-to-fake IDs is not a large leap but it's not one that will result in many press releases.





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