The warfighter couldn’t take it anymore. His team’s mission was to sweep villages, collect fingerprints, photograph irises, and compare these biometric indicators against a registry of known insurgents. Unfortunately, his assigned handheld biometric device lacked the ability to connect to off-site databases. The fact that the warfighter had to rely on the incomplete information in the device’s onboard memory was bad enough, but it enraged him even further, that the darn thing was so slow. Verifying the identity of a single man sometimes took as long as 45 minutes. A sweep of a small village took all day. This annoyed the villagers, and sapped the warfighter’s team of their mobility, which placed them in danger.

A warfighter uses a small, ruggedized, hand-held computer to check strategic data before carrying out his mission.
Disgusted, the warfighter threw the handheld onto a mound of broken biometric equipment (no one has the security clearance to repair them; mounds of broken biometric devices are supposedly found all over Iraq). He got a scanner for the fingerprints and a digital camera to photograph the irises. To process the biometric data, he decided to use a laptop that was Biometric Automated Tools (BAT) compatible, could connect to the Automated Biometrics Identification System (ABIS), and had a CPU powerful enough to process the large files. He was in Special Forces, which meant that he needed his hands free, so he sewed the laptop into his uniform, an extreme example of a “wearable computer.”

I heard this story last year from a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). I have never been able to confirm it, and it may be apocryphal. Still, it impressed me, because it illustrated many of the challenges facing front-line computing, including:

Battlefield connectivity: Frontline soldiers want information and they want it now. In the old days, information went strictly to the “back-end,” i.e. headquarters. Now, data must flow quickly to the “front end,” the frontlines. It makes no sense to have a sluggish biometric device that cannot connect to offsite databases in real time. “Remember that suspicious guy we ran into yesterday? We just got a match on his fingerprints and he’s an insurgent. Do you think he’s still in that village?” The challenge of delivering connectivity to the battlefield is sometimes called “The Last Tactical Mile.”

altData explosion: Like video images—the signature data package of modern war— biometric files are enormously large. To process them in real time, the computer needs a CPU faster than the typical ARM-type processor found in many mobile handhelds.

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