Special Operators on Lookout for New Biometric, Forensic Tools

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

TAMPA, Fla. — Mike Fitz, program manager for Special Operations Command’s sensitive site exploitation program, asked a crowd of industry members, government officials and special operators if any of them had seen the movie  Zero Dark Thirty.

A number of arms immediately shot up at the mention of the highly acclaimed 2012 action thriller that dramatized the search for Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

“After they shot bin Laden … they run into the back where all the computers were and they started saying, ‘Conduct SSE!’ and they started ripping out the hard drives and gathering papers,” Fitz said.

“That’s us — That’s the equipment we provide to those guys to be able to capture forensic evidence and bring it back for analysis or do analysis on site, if possible.”

“It’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to being famous; it’s probably as close as we ever want to get to being famous,” he said May 22 during the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.

Sensitive site exploitation is part of SOCOM’s special reconnaissance, surveillance and exploitation program office, where work is conducted to collect biometric and forensic intelligence. 

As the Defense Department shifts to a strategy that will rely more on special operators, those conducting sensitive site exploitation missions need new technologies, Fitz said.

SSE is looking mostly for commercial-off-the-shelf items, but is open to investing some developmental money for the right projects, Fitz said. The program has been allocated about $15 million for fiscal year 2015. For the next several years, he expects the office will spend about $10 million to $12 million per year on procurement.

Special forces urgently need better DNA processing devices, Fitz said. 

“Unfortunately, right now we get a [DNA] swab and have to mail it back to a lab somewhere,” he said. Special operators need a product that can rapidly process the swabs on the field, he said.

The program is currently experimenting with three different companies' DNA identification technologies: LGC Forensic’s ParaDNA; NetBio’s Accelerated Nuclear DNA Equipment; and integenX’s RapidHit 200. Comparison testing has been completed and the office hopes to field a product this fiscal year, he said.

“We’ve been putting money into rapid DNA devices for several years now and it's finally starting to bear some fruit,” Fitz said. “We tested three different products from three different companies … and lo and behold all three of them did pretty well. We are in the process now of pushing some of those devices out into the field so … [we] can see how they perform in real conditions and what kind of actual value they provide us, to make sure we get the bang for the buck.”

A successful DNA identification system must rapidly analyze DNA, be lightweight and simple to use, Fitz said.

The office is also seeking a replacement for its Cross Match SEEK II device, which collects biometric information such as fingerprints and iris images. It’s a good tool, but it is eight years old and in need of replacement, Fitz said.

“Ideally, we find that we might go with an app [and] get your fingerprint, your iris and your face [scanned]. We’re not quite there yet. But something smaller than a shoe box would certainly be of big value to us,” he said.

The office put out a request for information this March and hopes to select a device by next summer. 

Another item the office is seeking includes a way to collect latent fingerprints without dusting, Fitz said.

“Dustless latent print is kind of our nirvana. [If] we can go into a place and find and capture latent prints without ever leaving evidence that we were there that would be a game changer for us,” he said.

“We don’t always want the guys to know that we’ve been there.”

A new method to identify hidden chambers in buildings would also be helpful, he said. The program wants "anything that can make us into Superman with X-ray vision,” he said.

Topics: Homeland Security, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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