AFIS Links Help Corner Crooks

Individual fingerprint databases become more powerful when combined into statewide, regional and national networks.

by / January 31, 1999
An automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) is a complex computer database that reads the whorls and ridges of an individual fingerprint. Long accepted in law enforcement, fingerprints are still considered the surest evidence of a suspect's presence at the crime scene or contact with the instrument of the crime. AFIS technology has made prints an even more powerful tool, but, as one of the most mature technologies in law enforcement's modern arsenal, AFIS systems are undergoing a metamorphosis.

This is the second of two parts about AFIS. The first part ("The Latent Potential of Latent Prints," Government Technology January) told the history of AFIS-- where it started and what it does.

Two Types of Prints

There are two types of prints. The first, nicknamed 10-prints, are taken when someone is arrested for a crime. The 10-print card records the fingers, thumbs and a palm print on a large index card. These prints are carefully taken, clear and easy to read, and make up the bulk of AFIS data available today. Originally, all prints were created on the cards and scanned into the system, but today, more agencies have acquired digital finger- and palm-print readers that increase the quality of the prints in the database. The second type of prints are called latent prints. These are the prints that suspects leave at the scenes of their crimes, and they are often partial or smudged, requiring more detailed computer analysis. Latent prints from the scene of a crime are scanned into the AFIS system, which checks them against all other prints in the system. Usually within moments, the system will kick back a list of possible matches. From that point, it is up to the investigator to examine the prints for a match.

Local Databases Expanded by Links

Once isolated in locally held databases, AFIS data is now linked in a variety of ways, including national, statewide and regional networks. Many cities are, in a move uncharacteristic of law enforcement, giving up their own fingerprint systems and turning them over to the states, thereby creating larger databases while unburdening themselves of the high cost of keeping up with the rapidly advancing technology.

The standardization of 10-print technology, required by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has led to a national database, maintained by the FBI, that is accessible to state and local law enforcement. Most investigators believe that the larger the database, the more likely there is to be a match. Still, as with any cutting-edge technology, there is some debate.

"The best way to look at that issue is as a pyramid. The bottom of the pyramid is the broad base, the bulk of your work, and it is all done locally," said Ken Moses, the former San Francisco Police Department investigator who helped pioneer AFIS in the early 1980s. "Then there is the next tier, which might be adjacent jurisdictions. For San Francisco, there are many cases where the bad guy might have a link to Oakland. Then there is the next tier, statewide, but there will be fewer cases that will benefit from a statewide search. By the time you get up to the level of the FBI, there is a very small volume of cases that benefit from searching there.

"The fact is that most criminals are local. They may travel across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, but they aren't suddenly going to go to Idaho. There are exceptions to that, especially in the realm of con artists, but the rule holds: Most criminals are local."

Most in law enforcement agree, but in an age dominated by easy air travel and loose family ties, the bad guys, like everyone else, are taking to the open American road. It is not as unusual as it once was for people of all types to pull up stakes and move to Idaho, Wyoming or even to another coast. Hence, statewide and regional networks are showing great success.

"Our network has proven invaluable to investigators of all types of crimes," said Victor Fleck, systems development manager for the nonprofit Western Identification Network Inc., which has linked AFIS data from nine states and six federal agencies to create a successful network. Law enforcement experts agree that it helps if the investigator knows the states in which a suspect might have existing ties, but WIN has seen out-of-state 10-print hits soar more than 60 percent for some rural states. Along with the changes in criminal behavior, there are other reasons why regional and, especially, statewide systems are becoming common.

City Surrenders System

Phoenix recently chose to give its $6 million AFIS, developed by Sagem Morpho Inc., to the state. The transfer was the first step in implementing the Arizona AFIS, one of the nation's most complex and comprehensive AFIS projects. The benefits for Arizona law enforcement were twofold: First, upgrading the 1991 Phoenix system rather than purchasing a brand-new one saved the state millions of dollars; second, the uniform statewide system immediately resulted in criminals being brought to justice. In the first six months after state-sponsored AFIS workstations were installed in the Pima County, Ariz., jail, 300 inmates who had given false identities were exposed. Last April, the system matched the prints on file for one of Arizona's 10 most wanted criminals, a sexual predator, to a man living under an alias in Maricopa County.

"Expanding the Morpho system to a statewide AFIS increases our range and efficiency of criminal investigations," said Frank Rodgers, latent prints supervisor for the Phoenix Police Department. "It is a good tool for latent examiners."

Tower of Babel is Tumbling Down

Since its inception, when only a handful of vendors existed, the AFIS industry has exploded, with dozens of vendors now vying for contracts. The competition meant agencies that had contracted with different vendors could not electronically share AFIS data, because of the different ways systems code their AFIS information.

In the early 1990s, the National Institute for Standards and Training (NIST) implemented standards for the 10-prints. It has taken longer to come up with standards for the transfer of latent prints between dissimilar systems. This important step in making sure AFIS technology can be utilized to its full potential is now near completion. In July, the International Association for Identification completed testing of the standards for both the 10-print and latent standards. While no agencies have purchased the system yet, the participating vendors, which included most major AFIS vendors, say the technology is now available to electronically share AFIS data between dissimilar systems.

"We see it as good for our customers, and consequently good for us as well. Now it is up to each individual jurisdiction to decide how they want to share the data," said Sandra Salzer, Sagem Morpho's senior communications specialist. "All they need to do is for the participating agencies to purchase what we euphemistically call the 'black box,' a translator that will allow the systems to communicate."

For a technology that seems to have gotten stronger each time it has broadened its base of data, these translators could be the final step in the effort to strip away the cloak of anonymity behind which criminals try to hide.

Western Identification Network, Inc.

Western Identification Network, Inc.

Raymond Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer and a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. Email