Anchor Lisa Mullins talks to “Scientific American” editor Christine Gorman about the range of biometric tools used to identify the body of Osama Bin Laden. Download MP3
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Lisa Mullins: The Chinese people that we just heard from at least acknowledge that Osama Bin Laden was in fact, killed. Not everybody believes it. The Taliban in Afghanistan today said that they’re not buying the story until they see proof. Well, U.S. officials say they have proof. They say they confirmed Bin Laden’s identity with face recognition tools and DNA tests. Christine Gorman is an editor for Scientific American. She has written an article called How Biometrics Helped to Identify the Master Terrorist. Christine, we don’t yet know the tools that were used to identify Bin Laden, but let’s see what they have in the toolbox, starting with DNA testing. What kind of equipment could navy seals have had to confirm that this was indeed Bin Laden?
Christine Gorman: Starting with DNA testing, most people in fact in the entire world have very, very similar DNA. So what you have to do is take that part of the DNA which is unique to an individual and by testing and comparing it to samples from family members, you can confirm with a very high degree of accuracy, that it was in fact, Bin Laden. And nearly 10 years have passed since September 11. The U.S. government has been collecting DNA samples from various family members from the Bin Laden family. And so using all of those samples they should get a good match.
Mullins: So what kind of tissue would they try to get from Bin Laden or from his corpse, and do these family members know that they’ve been having DNA collected by the U.S. for 10 years?
Gorman: Oh, yes, so the kind of tissue samples you use are blood samples. You can also take it from the dental roots. You could do it from skin that’s a little bit harder. Most likely, they took blood samples. Some of the family members I understand have actually volunteered their DNA to be tested.
Mullins: And how accurate is that though because John Brennan, the White House’s Chief Counterterrorism Advisor is saying that the DNA match returned a 99% certainty the commandoes did in fact get Osama Bin Laden. Why not 100%?
Gorman: Well, all of these tests are based on probability, and so what you do is you compare the DNA analysis to other types of analysis — the face recognition, you know, fingerprints I don’t know, but it seems to me that if there’s a fingerprint of Bin Laden on file somewhere from his Saudi military service or other, that the U.S. government probably has it. So you can do all of these things and compare all of those techniques and you’ll have a very high degree of probability.
Mullins: Okay, so facial recognition then. How do they go about using that as a tool and how much certainty can they have and through what method of facial recognition that this was Bin Laden?
Gorman: So facial recognition is the new sort of sexy technique now and it’s not something that is as accurate as DNA analysis or fingerprinting. It’s one more toolkit. So, for racial recognition they measure different distances on the face; for example, the distance between the eyes, the corners of the mouth, various measurements around the cheekbone and the jawline. They combine all that, they get a certain set of characteristics for that face. Part of what makes facial recognition difficult is the challenges are lighting and a standard setting. But of course, Osama Bin Laden didn’t sit down for a portrait anywhere, so you’d have to build all that from looking at various images; that’s why it’s less accurate.
Mullins: Christine, there are two other things that seem to be working in the favor of those who use biometrics — one is that the results happen so quickly because of computer processing power now; the other thing is that the toolbox itself is so much more portable than it used to be.
Gorman: Yes, as I wrote in the article that showed up on Scientific American’s website, the devices even in 2003 when the U.S. went into Iraq weighed about 50 lbs., not very portable and they weren’t very automated either. Nowadays they’re in the range of to to three, to in some cases four pounds, you can have connectivity anywhere in the world, much more portable devices.
Mullins: Christine Gorman, thank you very much.
Gorman: It’s my pleasure, Lisa.
Mullins: Christine Gorman is an editor for Scientific American in New York. You can find her article on biometrics at theworld.org. And by the way, Christine tells us that the department of defense has confirmed for her that 700 so-called high value targets were detained in 2010 using these biometric tools.
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