DHS refines its requirements for fingerprint readers

Officials of the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System program yesterday told fingerprint system vendors to modify their software and hardware in line with the government's evolving criteria, amid plans to deploy 10-fingerprint systems in fiscal 2008.

Federal speakers at the meeting expressed general satisfaction with the products that exist in the market now, but emphasized 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 themselves and the back-end databases against which the fingerprints are compared.

Secretary Michael Chertoff kicked off the department's 10-Print Capture Industry Day with a speech emphasizing the importance of upgrading U.S. Visit's existing two-print border biometric system with the planned 10-print capability.

'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],' he said.

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,' Chertoff said.

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.

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

DHS is working on a somewhat more gradual schedule. The department plans to issue a request for proposals early next year that would result in pilot project tests using several hundred units next summer, and a downselect decision or other procurement action leading to a procurement decision early in fiscal 2008. DHS plans to field about 3,000 10-fingerprint reader units in 2008, 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.'

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.

The U.S. Visit chief also pointed to 'segmentation' as an issue where DHS officials seek improved systems. Segmentation 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],' Mocny said. He noted that the government is encouraging additional companies to enter the fingerprint capture technology market.

Other officials speaking at the DHS-sponsored meeting noted that NIST is continuing to develop more sophisticated mathematical algorithms that would help software developers improve the methods they use to handle the problem of rating fingerprint image quality.

Officials also seek improvements in the machines' form factor, to help agencies deal with the problem of restricted space available for their installation.

For example, Stephen A 'Tony' Edson, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for visa services, noted 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 are also an issue in some overseas State Department posts, he said.

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