New FBI system to use hands, faces, irises, in addition to 70 million fingerprints to ID suspects

If you get stopped by the police in Houston, it will take them just 16 seconds to compare your fingerprints to the 2 million that are in a database of terrorists, sex offenders, criminals with outstanding arrest warrants and others.

The Repository for Individuals of Special Concern system is part of the FBI's new nationwide Next-Generation Identification system that eventually will employ a host of new technologies to more quickly and accurately identify criminal suspects.

"Most criminals don't carry IDs, or if they do, they're fake IDs," said John Traxler, NGI program manager at the FBI's criminal justice information services division. The new identification system enables police officers to use a handheld fingerprint reader to send prints through a squad car's radio to the FBI's database and learn almost instantly whether there is a match.

If not, don't relax yet. Your prints also can be compared to 70 million stored in a much larger database. That will take about 30 minutes.

For now, the NGI system, which began operating Feb. 25, handles fingerprints only. But during the next several years, new biometric capabilities will be added to make identification possible through facial recognition technology, iris patterns, and digital photographs of scars, tattoos and other physical markings.

The $1.2 billion program replaces the 12-year-old Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which was built to process 62,000 daily requests for fingerprint comparisons. But as security nationwide has tightened since the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the demand for fingerprint checks from law enforcement agencies has multiplied to more than 200,000 a day, Traxler said.

"The FBI recognized that it needed to build a follow-on system that was bigger, faster, stronger and more open to new technology," said Art Ibers, NGI program director at Lockheed Martin Corp., which built the new system. When fully installed, NGI will be able to process 900,000 identification requests a day, he said.

The key to the new system is an advanced algorithm for analyzing and comparing fingerprints.

"Fingerprints contain a number of minutia," or tiny features such as ridges, furrows, loops and swirls. The algorithm analyzes these and builds an index for each print, Ibers said.

When a new fingerprint arrives for comparison, an index is made and then compared to the others in the database.

The old system was able to make an accurate match about 92 percent of the time if there was a matching fingerprint in the database, Ibers said.

NGI increases that accuracy to 99.6 percent, Traxler said.

In addition to speeding up the processing of fingerprints, NGI is scheduled to add automated comparison of palm prints and latent fingerprints -- those left on surfaces and recoverable at crime scenes -- to its repertoire next year. The improvements are aimed at helping police solve crimes. Many of the prints found at crime scenes are palm prints, Traxler said.

At present, there is no way to conduct an automated search that compares palm prints or latent prints with databases, he said. The search algorithm to do that will be different because the prints often are poor quality, thus harder to compare. For now, it's a time-consuming, manual process.

Facial recognition and automated comparisons of scars and body markings capabilities are expected to be added to the system in 2013.

Initially, facial recognition capability will be limited to two-dimensional photos, such as mug shots and driver's license photos, Traxler said. The ability to accurately make matches from those images has improved substantially in the past two years, he said.

More complex facial-recognition technology using video and three-dimensional images is not yet reliable enough to consider for the NGI system, he said.

Also in 2013, the FBI is expected to begin experimenting with iris recognition. Although not widely used in the United States, identification through iris patterns is catching on overseas. In part, it's attractive "because no contact is required, you just take a picture," Traxler said. In some cultures there is substantial resistance to having fingerprints taken.

The NGI system is expected to serve more than 18,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies and to provide print matching services to the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

The prospect of a massive new multitechnology identification database has caused concern among some privacy advocates. The Electronic Privacy Information Center warned that the new system will greatly expand the amount and types of information collected and maintained about people in government databases and biometric data is not always accurate.

Increased data collection "is always something to be concerned about," agreed Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Harper said he is concerned "about the collection policies" the FBI will use to determine when information will be gathered what information will be stored in the database.

If the NGI system is used to check the identification of "genuine suspects, then it's appropriate." And if the new system does a faster and more accurate job of making identifications, that's good, he said.

Traxler said using multiple identifiers -- fingerprints, facial recognition, body markings and eventually irises -- "is about making identification more positive."

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