Gotcha! FBI launches new biometric systems to nail criminals

Palm prints, iris images and mug shots join fingerprints in the FBI's database, helping to identify the bad guys.

Nearly 80 years after it began collecting fingerprints on index cards as a way to identify criminals, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is moving to a new system that improves the accuracy and performance of its existing setup while adding more biometrics.

By adding palm print, face and iris image search capabilities, the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS) hopes to improve the accuracy of identity searches, make it easier to positively identify and track criminals as they move through the criminal justice system and provide a wider range of tools for crime scene investigators.

To take full advantage of all of the new capabilities, however, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies may need to update their own systems to be able to capture the data, forward it to the FBI and search against the nationwide database.


NGI timeline


The FBI makes its first foray into biometrics, with fingerprints on index cards.


FBI launches its first computer system created to search fingerprint files.


FBI debuts the Criminal Justice Information Services Division.


The Bureau begins work on the Integrated Automated Fingerprint ID System database (IAFIS) to automate fingerprint collection and retrieval.


IAFIS is fully deployed.


Development of the $1.2 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) system begins.

February 2011

CJIS delivers a more powerful computer system with a more accurate algorithm to match flat and rolled fingerprints to the criminal master file database.

August 2011

The FBI adds the Repository of Individuals of Special Concern, which includes "the worst of the worst" criminals, and launches a system that lets officers in the field use a mobile system to scan two fingers of the suspect and query NGI for a nearly instantaneous response.

February 2012

The FBI launches Interstate Photo System Facial Recognition Pilot with three states, which allows searches against more than 15 million mug shots.

May 2013

A new latent fingerprint matching feature, which matches fingerprints found at a crime scene with those in the system, debuts, with nearly three times greater accuracy. FBI launches a new palm print database and search service; the new system handles 200,000 requests per day with a response time of 10 seconds or less.


- Facial recognition service to go live.

- Iris recognition pilot to launch.

- IAFIS system to be decommissioned.


"Most booking stations are starting to gather all of the modalities -- fingerprints, palm, and face and iris," says Jon Kevin Reid, assistant section chief in the CJIS division. But many regional and local law enforcement systems don't yet capture all of that information, and will need to upgrade their own systems to reap the benefits from the new system.

The current database, the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint ID System (IAFIS), includes information on 135 million criminals and terrorists, as well as civil servants and other citizens who work in "positions of trust."

Since its launch in 2008, the $1.2 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) project has been incrementally replacing pieces of the aging IAFIS and adding new features (see the text box at right).

To date, the agency has upgraded the ten-print system hardware and software, launched a new palm-print search capability and is currently piloting face recognition services with an eye toward full deployment next year. An iris recognition pilot will commence next summer.

"NGI is a seven-year program and we're in the last year," says Reid. By the end of 2014, the agency plans to have all new functions rolled out and the entirety of IAFIS decommissioned.

Mobile ID

The recently released mobile ID system is one of the more compelling new features in NGI. It lets officers in the field use a handheld fingerprint scanner during a traffic stop and run a two-fingerprint check against the NGI's newly created Repository of Individuals of Special Concern (RISC).

That subset of the criminal master file includes "the worst of the worst," Reid explains, such as criminals with outstanding warrants,known sex offenders and suspected and known terrorists. Responses come back within six seconds, Reid says.

So far, 13 states are using RISC, and the State of Michigan is currently implementing it, says Scott Blanchard, manager of the automated print identification section at the Michigan State Police.

Core upgrades

In NGI, the ten-print system has also been improved because it now runs on a more powerful, 1,000-blade server farm -- the old IAFIS system runs on 64 blades -- and uses enhanced recognition algorithms. "NGI is faster, more accurate, and has better process flows than IAFIS had," says Blanchard.

Fingerprints are more accurate than facial recognition for identifying individuals. And now in NGI, the ten-print system has been improved because it runs on a more powerful, 1,000-blade server farm.

The matching accuracy rate has risen from 92% to 99% while average response time has dropped from 2 hours to 10 minutes. "That changes the game at the local police station," says Art Ibers, director of the NGI program at government contractor Lockheed Martin.

But the time improvement is for matching fingerprints scanned under controlled conditions, such as at a police booking station. Matching latent fingerprints -- those found at a crime scene -- is much more difficult. With an accuracy rate of just 25%, IAFIS wasn't highly effective for investigators. By contrast, the upgraded NGI capabilities rolled out in May 2013 have had an accuracy rate well above 80% for latents, due to an improved algorithm that takes advantage of more compute horsepower, Reid says.

Going for the palm

A national palm-print database, deployed in May 2013, should also help investigators because palm prints are left at the crime scene 30% of the time. "There will be significant leads around cold cases that we couldn't have gotten before," Reid says.

The State of Michigan has been taking palm prints for five years, but Blanchard says there have been a few kinks getting up and running with the new system. "The FBI has placed requirements on palm print submissions that most states are not meeting," he says.

In a palm capture, NGI requires that the whole hand be captured, not just the palm. "They are trying to compare the fingers from the palm capture to the fingerprints that were rolled to make sure the palm matches the person. Many agencies aren't meeting that requirement. We are capturing just the palm, not the entire hand," Blanchard explains.

In some cases the biometric devices that local law enforcement is using to collect data may need to be modified or replaced entirely. "Until this issue gets resolved, the usefulness of the palm database is limited," he says.

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