As the 20th century comes to a close, ongoing developments in fingerprint technology promise to revolutionize law enforcement, just as the inkpad did nearly 100 years ago.

In July, law enforcement agencies throughout the country will have access to the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a national online fingerprint and criminal-history database with identification and response capabilities considered unattainable less than a decade ago.

Justice agencies that now wait several weeks for the FBI to respond to identification requests will have the same information in their hands in just two hours when requests are submitted electronically to IAFIS. Identification requests for noncriminal justice purposes such as pre-employment background checks and licensing will have the information returned in only 24 hours when submitted electronically.

IAFIS will allow the FBI to process 62,000 10-print searches per day, more than enough capability to respond to the 51,000 fingerprint cards submitted to the bureau daily. In addition, IAFIS will be able to search latent prints obtained at crime scenes against its master database of known criminal suspects. Each day, 635 latent searches can be conducted. When completed, IAFIS will have cost $640 million, the U.S. Justice Department's most expensive project ever, according to the FBI's Douglas J. Domin, deputy assistant director of operations, who is responsible for the transfer of the Bureau's fingerprint services to IAFIS.

Three Segments of IAFIS

IAFIS consists of three basic integrated segments: the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the Interstate Identification Index (III) and Identification Tasking and Networking (ITN). Here is how IAFIS will work:

An individual taken into custody at the local level has his or her fingerprints taken on a live-scan fingerprinting terminal. Using store-and- forward technology, copies of the digitized prints, along with personal information about the suspect -- such as name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and type of alleged offense -- are transmitted through the state's law enforcement network to the state fingerprint repository. There, the prints are checked for matches electronically and are stored. Copies of the prints are also transmitted, along with the personal information, through the wide area network of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division to the FBI's fingerprint repository, maintained by the CJIS in Clarksburg, W.Va. The CJIS' WAN is comprised of high-end communications equipment, encryption components and firewalls installed in all 50 states. It was designed with enough communications bandwidth to support a daily traffic load of more than 74,000 fingerprint package transmissions and hundreds of thousands of other transactions.

This is where IAFIS begins its work. The state submission arrives via e-mail carrying attachments with compressed fingerprint and mug-shot images and a text file with the suspect's personal information. IAFIS' Identification Tasking and Networking component -- the network's "traffic cop," according to Domin -- opens the e-mail and conducts a quality check to make sure it is formatted for the correct transaction type, determining whether the required records are present. A technician then conducts a second quality-control examination before initiating the search process.

Using the suspect's personal information, the network first conducts an III subject search. The III, created for the National Crime Information Center before being incorporated into the Identification Division Automated System (IDAS) when it was implemented in 1989, contains the criminal histories, or rap sheets, of around 30 million offenders.

"The III search process uses a sophisticated matching algorithm that looks for a name, date of birth, Social Security number and other information," said Thomas J. Roberts, IAFIS assistant program manager. "When determining the likelihood of identification, it can recognize dates of birth or Social Security numbers that almost match except for two numbers being transposed, for example."

If a matching file is found, its fingerprint images are transmitted to a technician, who will compare the database prints to those submitted by the contributing law enforcement