Gotcha! FBI launches new biometric systems to nail criminals

Palm prints, iris images and mug shots join fingerprints in the FBI's database, helping to identify the bad guys.

Nearly 80 years after it began collecting fingerprints on index cards as a way to identify criminals, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is moving to a new system that improves the accuracy and performance of its existing setup while adding more biometrics.

By adding palm print, face and iris image search capabilities, the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS) hopes to improve the accuracy of identity searches, make it easier to positively identify and track criminals as they move through the criminal justice system and provide a wider range of tools for crime scene investigators.

To take full advantage of all of the new capabilities, however, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies may need to update their own systems to be able to capture the data, forward it to the FBI and search against the nationwide database.

"Most booking stations are starting to gather all of the modalities -- fingerprints, palm, and face and iris," says Jon Kevin Reid, assistant section chief in the CJIS division. But many regional and local law enforcement systems don't yet capture all of that information, and will need to upgrade their own systems to reap the benefits from the new system.

The current database, the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint ID System (IAFIS), includes information on 135 million criminals and terrorists, as well as civil servants and other citizens who work in "positions of trust."

Since its launch in 2008, the $1.2 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) project has been incrementally replacing pieces of the aging IAFIS and adding new features (see the text box at right).

To date, the agency has upgraded the ten-print system hardware and software, launched a new palm-print search capability and is currently piloting face recognition services with an eye toward full deployment next year. An iris recognition pilot will commence next summer.

"NGI is a seven-year program and we're in the last year," says Reid. By the end of 2014, the agency plans to have all new functions rolled out and the entirety of IAFIS decommissioned.

Mobile ID

The recently released mobile ID system is one of the more compelling new features in NGI. It lets officers in the field use a handheld fingerprint scanner during a traffic stop and run a two-fingerprint check against the NGI's newly created Repository of Individuals of Special Concern (RISC).

That subset of the criminal master file includes "the worst of the worst," Reid explains, such as criminals with outstanding warrants,known sex offenders and suspected and known terrorists. Responses come back within six seconds, Reid says.

So far, 13 states are using RISC, and the State of Michigan is currently implementing it, says Scott Blanchard, manager of the automated print identification section at the Michigan State Police.

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