Sarah Soliman is a Technical Analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.  Sarah’s research interests lie at the intersection of national security, emerging technology, and identity.  She can be found on Twitter @BiometricsNerd.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Next Generation Biometrics for U.S. Forces.

Date Originally Written:  March 18, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  June 26, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Sarah Soliman is a biometrics engineer who spent two years in Iraq and Afghanistan as contracted field support to Department of Defense biometrics initiatives.

Background:  When a U.S. Army specialist challenged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2004, it became tech-innovation legend within the military.  The specialist asked what the secretary was doing to up-armor military vehicles against Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks[1].  This town hall question led to technical innovations that became the class of military vehicles known as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, the MRAP.

History repeated itself in a way last year when U.S. Marine Corps General Robert B. Neller was asked in a Marine Corps town hall what he was doing to “up-armor” military personnel—not against attacks from other forces, but against suicide within their ranks[2].  The technical innovation path to strengthening troop resiliency is less clear, but just as in need of an MRAP-like focus on solutions.  Here are three approaches to consider in applying “blue force” biometrics, the collection of physiological or behavioral data from U.S. military troops, that could help develop diagnostic applications to benefit individual servicemembers.


US Army Specialist Thomas Wilson addresses the Secretary of Defense on base in Kuwait in 2004. Credit: Gustavo Ferrari / AP

Significance:  The September 11th terrorists struck at a weakness—the United States’ ability to identify enemy combatants.  So the U.S. military took what was once blue force biometrics—a measurement of human signatures like facial images, fingerprints and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) (which are all a part of an enrolling military member’s record)—and flipped their use to track combatants rather than their own personnel.  This shift led to record use of biometrics in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom to assist in green (partner), grey (unknown), and red (enemy) force identification.

After 9/11, the U.S. military rallied for advances in biometrics, developing mobile tactical handheld devices, creating databases of IED networks, and cutting the time it takes to analyze DNA from days to hours[3].  The U.S. military became highly equipped for a type of identification that validates a person is who they say they are, yet in some ways these red force biometric advances have plateaued alongside dwindling funding for overseas operations and troop presence.  As a biometric toolset is developed to up-armor military personnel for health concerns, it may be worth considering expanding the narrow definition of biometrics that the Department of Defense currently uses[4].

The options presented below represent research that is shifting from red force biometrics back to the need for more blue force diagnostics as it relates to traumatic brain injury, sleep and social media.

Option #1:  Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

The bumps and grooves of the brain can contain identification information much like the loops and whorls in a fingerprint.  Science is only on the cusp of understanding the benefits of brain mapping, particularly as it relates to injury for military members[5].

Gain:  Research into Wearables.

Getting military members to a field hospital equipped with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner soon after an explosion is often unrealistic.  One trend has been to catalog the series of blast waves experienced—instead of measuring one individual biometric response—through a wearable “blast gauge” device.  The blast gauge program made news recently as the markers failed to give vibrant enough data and the program was cancelled[6].  Though not field expedient, another traumatic brain injury (TBI) sensor type to watch is brain activity trackers, which CNN’s Jake Tapper experienced when he donned a MYnd Analytics electroencephalogram brain scanning cap, drawing attention to blue force biometrics topics alongside Veterans Day[7].



Blast Gauge. Credit: DARPA

Risk:  Overpromising, Underdelivering or “Having a Theranos Moment.”

Since these wearable devices aren’t currently viable solutions, another approach being considered is uncovering biometrics in blood.  TBI may cause certain proteins to spike in the blood[8]. Instead of relying on a subjective self-assessment by a soldier, a quick pin-prick blood draw could be taken.  Military members can be hesitant to admit to injury, since receiving treatment is often equated with stigma and may require having to depart from a unit.  This approach would get around that while helping the Department of Defense (DoD) gain a stronger definition of whether treatment is required.


Credit: Intelligent Optical Systems Inc

Option #2:  Sleep.

Thirty-one percent of members of the U.S. military get five hours or less of sleep a night, according to RAND research[9].  This level of sleep deprivation affects cognitive, interpersonal, and motor skills whether that means leading a convoy, a patrol or back home leading a family.  This health concern bleeds across personal and professional lines.

Gain:  Follow the Pilots.

The military already requires flight crews to rest between missions, a policy in place to allow flight crews the opportunity to be mission ready through sleep, and the same concept could be instituted across the military.  Keeping positive sleep biometrics—the measurement of human signatures based on metrics like amount of total sleep time or how often a person wakes up during a sleep cycle, oxygen levels during sleep and the repeat consistent length of sleep—can lower rates of daytime impairment.

The prevalence of insufficient sleep duration and poor sleep quality across the force. Credit: RAND, Clock by Dmitry Fisher/iStock; Pillow by Yobro10/iStock

Risk:  More memoirs by personnel bragging how little sleep they need to function[10].

What if a minimal level of rest became a requirement for the larger military community?  What sleep-tracking wearables could military members opt to wear to better grasp their own readiness?  What if sleep data were factored into a military command’s performance evaluation?

Option #3:  Social Media.

The traces of identity left behind through the language, images, and even emoji[11] used in social media have been studied, and they can provide clues to mental health.

Gain:  It’s easier to pull text than to pull blood.

Biometric markers include interactivity like engagement (how often posts are made), what time a message is sent (which can act as an “insomnia index”), and emotion detection through text analysis of the language used[12].  Social media ostracism can also be measured by “embeddedness” or how close-knit one’s online connections are[13].




Risk:  Misunderstanding in social media research.

The DoD’s tweet about this research was misconstrued as a subtweet or mockery[14].  True to its text, the tweet was about research under development at the Department of Defense and in particular the DoD Suicide Prevention Office.  Though conclusions at the scale of the DoD have yet to be reached, important research is being built-in this area including studies like one done by Microsoft Research, which demonstrated 70 percent accuracy in estimating onset of a major depressive disorder[15].  Computer programs have identified Instagram photos as a predictive marker of depression[16] and Twitter data as a quantifiable signal of suicide attempts[17].

Other Comments:  Whether by mapping the brain, breaking barriers to getting good sleep, or improving linguistic understanding of social media calls for help, how will the military look to blue force biometrics to strengthen the health of its core?  What type of intervention should be aligned once data indicators are defined?  Many tombs of untapped data remain in the digital world, but data protection and privacy measures must be in place before they are mined.

Recommendations:  None.


[1]  Gilmore, G. J. (2004, December 08). Rumsfeld Handles Tough Questions at Town Hall Meeting. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[2]  Schogol, J. (2016, May 29). Hidden-battle-scars-robert-neller-mission-to-save-marines-suicide. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[3]  Tucker, P. (2015, May 20). Special Operators Are Using Rapid DNA Readers. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[4]  The DoD’s Joint Publication 2-0 defines biometrics as “The process of recognizing an individual based on measurable anatomical, physiological, and behavioral characteristics.”

[5]  DoD Worldwide Numbers for TBI. (2017, May 22). Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[6]  Hamilton, J. (2016, December 20). Pentagon Shelves Blast Gauges Meant To Detect Battlefield Brain Injuries. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[7]  CNN – The Lead with Jake Tapper. (2016, November 11). Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[8]  West Virginia University. (2014, May 29). WVU research team developing test strips to diagnose traumatic brain injury, heavy metals. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[9]  Troxel, W. M., Shih, R. A., Pedersen, E. R., Geyer, L., Fisher, M. P., Griffin, B. A., . . . Steinberg, P. S. (2015, April 06). Sleep Problems and Their Impact on U.S. Servicemembers. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[10]  Mullany, A. (2017, May 02). Here’s Arianna Huffington’s Recipe For A Great Night Of Sleep. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[11]  Ruiz, R. (2016, June 26). What you post on social media might help prevent suicide. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[12]  Choudhury, M. D., Gamon, M., Counts, S., & Horvitz, E. (2013, July 01). Predicting Depression via Social Media. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Brogan, J. (2017, January 23). Did the Department of Defense Just Subtweet Donald Trump? Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[15]  Choudhury, M. D., Gamon, M., Counts, S., & Horvitz, E. (2013, July 01). Predicting Depression via Social Media. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[16]  Reece, A. G., & Danforth, C. M. (2016, August 13). Instagram photos reveal predictive markers of depression. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from

[17]  Coppersmith, G., Ngo, K., Leary, R., & Wood, A. (2016, June 16). Exploratory Analysis of Social Media Prior to a Suicide Attempt. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from