INTERPOL knows that the identity data in its database is the best weapon governments have in the fight against terrorism and criminal activity. This is no news to terrorists and criminals, who have long used forged documents, aliases and other methods of deception to maintain a tactical advantage over law enforcement.
Today’s integrated data systems – particularly those developed after 9/11 – were designed to combat these kinds of deception. With biometrics as a fraud-proof common denominator of identity, the interoperability and robust security of these systems continues to result in the apprehension of criminals around the world.
Yet experience has shown that over time, integrated data systems experience an entropy of sorts. Bureaucracies start to hoard information, re-forming silos in the name of data security. Privacy and civil liberties advocates attempt to restrict the use of information, making it harder to share and utilize it across the law enforcement enterprise. New forms and indicators of identity can even erode the value of data held in integrated systems.
In its General Assembly meeting in Bali this week, INTERPOL acknowledged the extent of this problem in an extraordinary appeal to member countries. In a statement, the agency noted that “the lack of biometric data being shared on terrorists at the international level is creating a dangerous security gap for exploitation by returning foreign terrorist fighters.”
This is not a collection problem – the fingerprints, faces and other biometric details of known criminals are already on file. Rather, it’s an information sharing problem. By keeping data locked away in criminal databases, the right information is unavailable to the right decision-makers at the right time. The result? In INTERPOL’s own words, “with at least 15,000 fighters still estimated to be within conflict zones…[many] could return home to engage in radicalization or covert operations.”
The INTERPOL biometric database is relatively small – just over 160,000 records – but it contains valuable information on the most wanted criminals on earth. Perhaps more importantly, the INTERPOL database is widely accessible. Any member state can use it to identify people in the ordinary course of law enforcement, border management or military operations.
Yet the INTERPOL database only has value when countries actually use it. The more countries share biometric data of wanted criminals, the greater the universe of information which can thwart commonly used deception techniques. The more that data is queried, the more possibility of a useful lead which will result in an arrest. Unfortunately, the volume of queries and volume of inputs into INTERPOL’s biometric database suggest a system that is underutilized and undervalued.
INTERPOL’s question to its member states is starkly put: what is the value of unshared biometric information? INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock: “Not providing frontline officers with the information they need to positively identify a terrorist returning from the conflict zones is making them work with one hand tied behind their back. Governments should take a closer look at the reasons why they cannot or will not share biometric data on terrorists when it is clear that doing so greatly increases the chances of foiling potentially lethal attacks committed by returning fighters.”
In some countries, information sharing is a policy problem. In this case, data security and data privacy controls must be re-examined to unlock the value of accessible information in the law enforcement arena.
For a much larger group, however, the problem is a technical one. The majority of INTERPOL member states simply aren’t equipped with the hardware, software or subject matter expertise they need to use biometrics in their day-to-day law enforcement operations. Data isn’t collected in the proper formats. Transmission protocols to the INTERPOL database haven’t been set up. Processing of INTERPOL notices isn’t a feature of identity management platforms.
In these countries, technical capacity building and awareness should be a key priority. Unlocking the value of INTERPOL’s biometric holdings is critical for public security, and a concrete way to realize the value of INTERPOL membership. Investments in biometric infrastructure and expertise will pay law enforcement dividends for years to come, as the experience in early adopters like the US and EU have shown.
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Ben Ball is the Government Market Director at Crossmatch, where he oversees market intelligence and strategic outreach to government customers around the world. A ten year veteran of the Federal government, Ben was a Foreign Service Officer and worked in the Department of Homeland Security.