American diplomats were actively instructed to seek out detailed biometric information on politicians, bureaucrats and fellow bureaucrats from other countries and global organizations.
That's the news according to the latest trove of diplomatic cables released to the public by WikiLeaks. Among others, American diplomats attempted to get biometric and other sensitive identifying information from leading figures at the United Nations, and countries such as South Africa, the Sudan, Senegal, North Korea, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Syria.
The kind of information the State Department was looking for is a marketer's dream. One cable, apparently from Hillary Clinton to embassies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania, Clinton asked for the following of "persons related to the African Great Lakes":
Biographic and biometric data, including health, opinions toward the US, training history, ethnicity (tribal and/or clan), and language skills of key and emerging political, military, intelligence, opposition, ethnic, religious, and business leaders. Data should include email addresses,telephone and fax numbers, fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.
That's not the only data that American embassies were busy trying to dig up. Clinton's wire requests that diplomatic officers obtain credit card numbers, work schedules and frequent flyer account numbers of persons of interest in addition to business cards, phone numbers, job titles and email addresses.
Similar biometric and deep-information data gathering was also happening in the Palestinian Authority. Diplomats throughout the Middle East were instructed to collect similar information on Fatah and Hamas officials, including the same biometric data, credit card numbers and frequent flyer numbers—but with more specific wording than the African cable. The exact wording used by the State Department was "biographical, financial and biometric information on key PA and Hamas leaders and representatives, to include the young guard inside Gaza, the West Bank and outside." Diplomats were also asked to obtain "details of travel plans such as routes and vehicles used by Palestinian Authority leaders and Hamas members."
While it is hard to imagine a scenario in which United States diplomats get retinal scans of African and Middle East politicians, some biometric identifiers are much easier for the State Department to get their hands on. Fingerprints, DNA and signatures all fall under the biometric identifier rubric and are all easily obtainable.
Clues to how the State Department obtained biometric data can be found in the Pentagon's recent embrace of biometric identification in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraqi government, under the supervision of the American occupation, has collected fingerprints and retinal scans of nearly every member of the Iraqi military, police and prison service—along with every prisoner and registered gun owner in Iraq for good measure.
Privacy groups feared that the massive cache of identifying materials constituted a "hit list" that was at easy risk of being obtained by terrorists through hacking or other unsavory methods.
A biometric database in Iraq was created out of fingerprints found on enemy weapons and bombs. In Afghanistan, the current government is undertaking a product under American supervision to create biometric identification cards for the entire adult population using technology from American firms. The U.S. military currently has biometric information on 800,000 Afghans, while the Afghan government's database contains just 250,000 records.
Afghan politicians are hopeful that the identification card can someday be used for banking as well as voter and vehicle registration. Afghanistan currently has a literary rate of 28.1% and only 12.6% of Afghan women can read.
But the million dollar question remains: how will the U.S. government use biometric information on foreign leaders?
[Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley]