Challenge seeks mobile fingerprint capture tech for responders
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Oct 08, 2021
The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Public Safety Communication Research (PSCR) Division is looking for applications and hardware accessories that will allow law enforcement officers capture high-quality fingerprints in the field with a mobile device.
The Mobile Fingerprinting Innovation Technology (mFIT) Challenge is open to innovators in any field who want to submit whitepapers and prototypes for a chance to win awards worth up to $430,000. The goal of the challenge is to inspire the development of commercial and open source products that could be added to the FirstNet App Ecosystem for first responders to use.
Specifically, NIST wants innovators to create or improve a smartphone or tablet application that accesses the device’s sensors and captures high-quality digital fingerprint images that can be interpreted by existing fingerprint management systems.
The challenge came about after members of the Criminal Justice Information Services’ Advisory Policy Board expressed a need for high-quality fingerprints that could interact with the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a national system for digitally storing, comparing and exchanging fingerprint data that the FBI has maintained since 1999.
“Sometimes [officers are] still using the ink, most of the time they’re using the digital readers – quite different from what you can do on a smartphone,” said John Beltz, IT security manager at PSCR and technical lead for mFIT. “You actually place your fingers on a reader at the fingerprint facility -- very high-quality, FBI-certified way to do things. However, that involves the officer leaving whatever job they’re doing and taking a suspect to a facility, and in rural areas that can be two to three hours each way.”
Also currently available and FBI-certified are small boxes with sensors that scan a print and store it locally. When officers plug the device into a computer, they can upload the print to the database for processing.
Apps for fingerprinting exist already, but IAFIS doesn’t accept them because they’re not high-quality and trustworthy enough, Beltz said.
“We’re a long way off from being able to take a fingerprint and actually enroll it in the FBI database, for example,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that you can do a search function. So if you come across an individual and they don’t have ID, they won’t tell you who they are or they have fake ID, you can collect a fingerprint sample and do a search against the database. You can’t become part of the database, but you can run a search and get a reasonable assumption of who you’re dealing with, judging by the match rate.”
Other potential use cases that could benefit from such technology are physical security and access control systems, border control and military identification tracking systems as well as health care and disaster response patient tracking. For instance, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency has the Secure Web Fingerprint Transmission program, which lets defense industry users with clearances submit electronic fingerprints and demographic information to the agency’s Fingerprint Transaction System.
The reason for using a challenge rather than a typical procurement process is two-fold, said Gary Howarth, prize challenge specialist at PSCR. For one, he anticipates there being many types of solutions, and it opens the aperture of potential innovators beyond industry, to include universities and individual researchers.
“We know that there is a fair amount of basic research out there in this area and that people may have pieces or components of a complete solution, so this competition will allow these individuals to potentially work with other teams, groups to then have a combined solution,” Howarth said.
The challenge identifies six technology gaps, and participants can produce solutions that address one, all or even none, he said, adding that innovations could uncover something completely new. The six gaps are: accurately measuring distance, flattening a distorted image and identifying distortion, improving the efficiency of rendering algorithms, accessing available sensors on mobile devices, developing sensors that could be used on mobile devices and modifying mobile devices or using add-on components.
The challenge will happen in two phases. In the first, competitors must submit a whitepaper detailing their concept by Oct. 18. Winners of that phase will be invited to enter the second phase, although participants who do not submit papers may still participate as walk-ons. During Phase 2, which kicks off Nov. 17, competitors submit prototypes -- hardware and code -- by April 4, 2022.
NIST’s director will select a panel of subject-matter experts to evaluate the submissions based on criteria such as cost, ruggedness, user satisfaction and creativity. The experts will likely include NIST engineers and scientists, law enforcement officers, law technologists and representatives from FirstNet.
Winners will be announced May 4.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.