FBI plans a big tent for biometrics

Upgrade of fingerprint repository could permit future identifiers

As for the other exotics, such as earlobe shape, the NGI will have the architecture to extend to them should the laws change. ' Jim Loudermilk, FBI

Hrvoje Knez/FOTOLIA

Tom Cruise, watch out. The FBI's planned biometric repository upgrade will improve the system's existing capability to store not only fingerprints but also the iris scans which pinpointed Cruise's character in the 2002 cinema spectacle 'Minority Report,' in addition to more futuristic identifiers.

FBI technologists are planning for upgrades that will buttress the law enforcement community's limited ability to use DNA as a forensic tool, according to a recent briefing the bureau offered on plans for its Next Generation Identification system.
NGI is designed to incorporate improved technology into the bureau's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).

The bureau plans within the next few weeks to request proposals from vendors to build NGI. The agency already has described a phased plan to roll out the upgrades to its existing biometric repository during the next several years.

'DNA has definitely proven its ability to be fabulously accurate,' said Jim Loudermilk, deputy assistant director at the bureau's Information Technology Operations Division. He cited instances in which DNA evidence has exonerated prisoners, some of whom had been held for decades or faced possible execution.

Many in the general public now believe that law enforcement agencies can routinely use DNA to investigate crimes, Loudermilk told an audience of vendor and government executives at an Industry Advisory Council briefing.

But legal and policy barriers to widespread DNA biometric use work together with the process' high cost to limit its usefulness, he said.

Another barrier is that existing DNA biometric repositories, including IAFIS, simply don't hold enough information to compete with the more familiar fingerprint data, he said.

The costs for DNA sequencing now can range into the thousands of dollars for a single forensic sample, Loudermilk said.

But FBI biometric experts estimate that the cost for collecting and sequencing a DNA sample could fall well below $20 in about 15 years, Loudermilk said.

Increased use of DNA as a biometric identifier also raises privacy issues, the FBI official said.

'We are adding a palm print system,' [as part of the NGI upgrade] Loudermilk said. He said the forensic community's experience with crime scenes has shown that palm print evidence is frequently available. 'The Japanese [police] have found palm prints very useful.

'As for the other exotics, such as earlobe shape [and voice prints and gait analysis], the NGI will have the architecture to extend to them should the laws change,' Loudermilk said.

The FBI wants its NGI project to forge faster and higher-quality links to biometric repositories other than those IAFIS now uses, Loudermilk said.

'Dealing with other repositories has emerged as a major problem,' he added.
The FBI wants NGI to include upgrades such as improved interoperability with the IDENT system the Homeland Security Department operates to carry out many of its immigration data processing functions.

The bureau's IAFIS repository and associated systems already exchange specified groups of fingerprints gathered from individuals who qualify as the worst of the worst among immigration law violators, known or suspected terrorists ,and similar wrongdoers.

Get more fingers

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has mandated that IDENT end its practice of gathering only two fingerprints and shift to the bureau's 10-fingerprint approach. That change will improve interoperability between the department's system and IAFIS.

The bureau's biometric technologists have consulted with their counterparts abroad to help develop regional biometric information repositories, Loudermilk said.
For example, some Middle Eastern countries seek to build a regional biometric database of criminals and other social enemies, and the bureau has advised them, he said.

In addition, the bureau now serves in effect as the global center for evaluating fingerprint-reading equipment.

Loudermilk presented a history of the bureau's biometric approaches to fingerprint acquisition, storage and processing dating from the early 1900s in addition to an explanation of how the agency developed its current biometric systems.

Loudermilk's personal involvement as the FBI executive responsible for design, development, installation and adoption of IAFIS gave weight to his review of these topics.

He mentioned several features the FBI plans to add to NGI to upgrade its operations from IAFIS, including:
  • Increased capacity, because IAFIS now is conducting fingerprint checks at a rate far above its original design rating.
  • An upgraded fingerprint identification engine, based on a study that the winning vendor will be required to conduct of commercial products in the field and other approaches to the task.
  • Reduced response time for additional categories of fingerprint checks.

Loudermilk said existing technology for reliably matching the mug shot photographs that police agencies take of people they arrest is nowhere near as mature as fingerprint-matching technology.

IAFIS' original design called for the system to process 62,500 fingerprint matches daily.

As a result of increased demand ' especially for background checks mandated by civil laws covering employees in the financial, child-care and educational fields ' among others, IAFIS' busiest day called for the system to process about 114,000 checks.

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