Feds reach for better readers

Current fingerprint technology is close, but agencies need smaller, faster machines

In fingerprint reader technology, 'the hardware is about a B+ and the software is C++.' Robert Mocny, U.S. Visit

Henrik G. de Gyor

Fingerprint-reading units are nearing the point where they will fully satisfy federal agencies' evolving requirements for the biometric identification systems.
Still, there are some holes in the technology that officials from several agencies, including the Homeland Security Department, said they wanted fixed.

At the department's 10-Print Capture Industry Day meeting last week, federal officials expressed general satisfaction with the products that exist in the market now, but emphasized to vendors the need for smaller, faster machines as well as improved software and human-factor functions.

Some technical specialists called for improvements in the software links between the reader units and the back-end databases against which fingerprints are compared.

DHS secretary Michael Chertoff emphasized the importance of upgrading the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system to have 10-print capability from its existing two-print border biometric system.

'The two-print system has already yielded significant results,' Chertoff said, referring to its ability to pinpoint wrongdoers already known to the authorities.
'But to stop the unknown threat, [the 10-print system] will allow us to scan prints against those gathered at terrorist training camps, from battlefields [or other areas where terrorists have been known to leave prints].'

Chertoff continued, 'When we get [the 10-print system] done it will be an important deterrent. Any terrorist will have to ask themselves whether they have left telltale fingerprints at any bomb factory, safe house [or similar terrorist location]. That aspect of deterrence will drive them crazy.'
Other presentations at the meeting came from representatives of Britain's UK Visa agency, the Coast Guard, Defense and State departments, the European Commission's Directorate General for Justice, Freedom and Security, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

State Department officials said they plan to deploy fingerprint-scanning units to about 300 locations worldwide by the end of fiscal 2007.

DHS is working on a more gradual schedule. The department plans to issue a request for proposals early next year that would result in a pilot project using several hundred units next summer. After the test, DHS would either choose a smaller number of vendors or move forward with another procurement action leading to a decision early in 2008, officials said.

DHS plans to field about 3,000 10-fingerprint reader units next year, officials said.

U.S. Visit's acting program manager, Robert Mocny, said that as far as the government's desired upgrades to the vendors' systems, 'the primary issue is quality [of the fingerprint image captured].'

He noted that about 2 percent of the population has fingerprints that cannot be read for various reasons, such as the digits having been worn by rough work. 'It's a fairly large percentage of the population,' Mocny added.

In grading current fingerprint reader technology, Mocny said, 'the hardware is about a B+ and the software is C++,' punning on the name of a common programming language.

Dealing with fingerprint image quality could involve modifications to various aspects of the units' hardware, including the cameras used to photograph the digits and the lighting inside the device, Mocny said.

He said DHS also wants to see improved 'segmentation,' which refers to a unit's ability to distinguish between the various fingers: index, middle, ring and pinkie.

'The system has to know the left hand from the right, how to deal with missing fingerprints, and so forth,' Mocny said. 'We had three or four systems that were pretty close [to the U.S. Visit program's needs].'

He added that the government is encouraging additional companies to enter the fingerprint capture technology market.

Other officials noted that NIST is developing more sophisticated mathematical algorithms that would help software developers improve how they handle the problem of rating fingerprint image quality.

Agencies also could use help with the problem of restricted space. For example, Stephen A. 'Tony' Edson, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for visa services, said that many visa processing stations overseas feature bulletproof glass and small shelves across which applicants currently shove their paperwork'shelves that allow little space for a fingerprint reader.

Harsh tropical weather conditions also are an issue in some overseas State Department posts, he said.

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