From Inkpad to Mousepad

IAFIS and fingerprint technology exemplify judicial integration at the dawn of the 21st century.

by / March 31, 1999
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 agency to verify the suspect's identity. The III file will be automatically updated with the new criminal history information.

If no match results from the subject search, the Identification Tasking and Networking will utilize the FBI's AFIS to search its 40 million 10-print digitized files for a match. The system can examine 3 million fingerprints per second, according to Domin. AFIS may return one candidate or many possible matches. A technician reviews the prints to make the final identification determination. "The technician then simply clicks on a button indicating whether or not the subject has been identified, and the system generates a return message automatically," said CJIS Computer Specialist Lawrence Jolma.

Once an identification is achieved, the III database is queried to establish whether the suspect has an existing criminal history or any outstanding warrants. If no match is found from the subject or fingerprint searches, the offender's name, criminal history and fingerprints are added to the respective databases, an FBI identification number is assigned to the offender, and the agency that requested the identification is notified of the search results and the new number. Roberts said that based on recidivism patterns, seven of every 10 individuals searched for in the FBI's files will most likely be found. Domin estimated that IAFIS will prevent the release of the 10,000 to 30,000 suspects freed each year because of extended delays in establishing their true identifies and warrant status.

The implementation of IAFIS culminates a decades-long effort to merge technology with the certainty of fingerprint identification to create a system that can effectively respond to the growing needs of state and local law enforcement agencies.

IAFIS Origins

The FBI, founded in 1908, has maintained the nation's fingerprint repository since 1924, when it assumed control of more than 800,000 print files consolidated from the National Bureau of Criminal Identification and Leavenworth Penitentiary.

The bureau implemented early versions of automated fingerprint systems in the 1970s for internal file keeping, but all prints transmitted to the FBI by state repositories and other law enforcement agencies were sent by mail. FBI technicians used the Henry Fingerprint Classification System and visual examinations to make identification determinations.

Fingerprint technology evolved to such a degree that by the mid-1980s, it became feasible for fingerprint repositories in states and large cities to automate portions of their services. A handful of manufacturers had developed and enhanced automated fingerprint identification systems using technology developed with the support of the FBI and Japan's national police.

Virtually all agencies that contributed fingerprints to the state repositories obtained them manually, using ink. The inked 10-print cards were mailed to the repositories and digitized by a card reader that extracted the fingerprint's minutiae or identifying factors so an electronic search could be conducted. The system produced candidates, and a technician would make the final match determination. Results were returned by mail to the contributing agencies.

Automated services were generally limited to systems maintained by state repositories and by large police agencies. A few intrastate and regional networks developed that allowed the exchange of fingerprint data, such as the Western Identification Network (WIN), which connected nine western states. Because WIN participants used equipment manufactured by the same vendor, NEC Technologies, participating repositories could exchange information electronically. Larger-scale or nationwide networks were virtually impossible to establish because of the incompatibility of different vendors' systems that had been installed in repositories around the county, making it impossible for one state's fingerprint repository to electronically utilize data stored in another state's system that utilized a different vendor's AFIS. Arizona, for example, could no longer participate in WIN because it purchased an AFIS manufactured by Sagem Morpho Inc., which could not interact with WIN's NEC systems.

More states utilized AFIS technology in the late 1980s. The FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Advisory Policy Board, consisting of representatives of federal, state and local criminal justice agencies, in 1989 expanded its advisory role to include fingerprint identification services and to provide the FBI with advice on necessary identification-services upgrades, according to Joseph Bonino, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Jail Division, and an advisory board member since 1988.

The APB formed a subcommittee, the Identification Services Task Group, to examine the operations of the FBI's Identification Division and to recommend improvements. The task group's 27 recommendations comprised the "Identification Division Revitalization" report submitted to the director in February 1990 that became the foundation for the development of IAFIS, Bonino said.

A major recommendation in the advisory board subcommittee's report was that the FBI take the lead in developing a standard for electronic fingerprint-image communications. A common national standard for the capture and transmission of fingerprint images and associated identification data would help alleviate the problem of incompatible, proprietary AFIS systems, which could not exchange information.

Working with the National Institute for Standards and Technology and federal, state and local criminal justice representatives, a series of workshops were held from 1990 to 1992 to establish the required standard. The standard, officially designated the Data Format for the Exchange of Fingerprint Information, was approved by the American National Standards Institute and published in November 1993. Most AFIS and live-scan equipment vendors now support this standard, making it easy for federal, state and local criminal justice agencies to procure IAFIS-compatible systems.

The AFIS portion of IAFIS was a different matter. It was unclear whether the technology available in the early 1990s could manage a fingerprint database as large as the one maintained by the FBI. The world's largest at the time -- maintained by the California Department of Justice -- held just over 5 million 10-print cards. The FBI's fingerprint database was almost seven times as large.

The FBI decided to follow the U.S. Department of Defense's practice and conduct its own version of a "fly-off," a process during which grants are given to aircraft manufacturers to assemble airplane prototypes which then compete against each other in design competitions.

The first IAFIS software development to be completed and put into operation was the Stand-Alone Image Storage and Retrieval System (ISR-SA), developed by Litton/PRC Inc., which became operational Oct. 6, 1997. ISR-SA allowed the FBI to access its Fingerprint Image Master File and to retrieve sets of images for on-screen comparison.

Current State Transmissions

The FBI responds to the needs of states ready to transmit prints electronically to the bureau following their own internal efforts to automate and integrate fingerprint and criminal history data and services. At this writing, California, Georgia and Florida are the most active states in transmitting fingerprint files electronically to the FBI.

* California, which has had an operational AFIS since its Digital Image Retrieval System, developed by NEC Technologies, was implemented in 1985, electronically submitted an average of 815 live-arrest fingerprint files a day to the FBI in October 1998. In 1997, California's AFIS underwent a $35 million upgrade that converted the system from optical to Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) storage technology, which protects against full-scale system failure by maintaining data on multiple hard drives rather than on a single large disk.

California's CAL-ID program seeks to install a live-scan fingerprint device in all 58 counties in the state, and perhaps in other facilities such as those that deal with juvenile justice and corrections. Agencies electronically forward fingerprint files to the state's fingerprint repository in Sacramento, which transmits the files through the CJIS WAN to the FBI. California maintains fingerprint files on almost 9 million individuals.

* Georgia, which purchased its first AFIS from NEC in 1987, transmitted approximately 350 prints per day to the FBI in October 1998. Georgia's AFIS was the first in the world to integrate fingerprint identification and criminal-history updates.

The system, managed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, includes five subsystems:

The Input Subsystem consists of two NEC fingerprint readers that scan print images and perform minutiae detection. The Matching Subsystem takes minutiae points from submitted prints and looks for matches with database prints. The Digital Subsystem holds the fingerprint images after potential match candidates are located. The Transaction Network is a local area network for data entry, transaction management and communications. The Networked AFIS Transaction Management System supports fingerprint transmissions from local agencies to the FBI.

Georgia's initial AFIS cost $6.1 million. Two subsequent upgrades cost $5.2 million. The AFIS holds approximately 3.75 million fingerprints. The system retains all 10 fingerprints for individuals who commit serious offenses, such as burglary. For less serious crimes, such as driving under the influence, only the thumbprints are retained. Approximately 30 percent of the fingerprints supplied to the state AFIS from local law enforcement agencies are submitted electronically. Almost two-thirds will be transmitted electronically by mid-1999.

* Florida has used Printrak equipment since it implemented its first AFIS in 1988. The AFIS is maintained as part of the state's Integrated Criminal History Network, directed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Florida currently maintains live-scan devices in 29 counties or municipalities. Funding has been appropriated to purchase the devices for 40 of Florida's 67 counties. Three other counties purchased their own live-scans.

During the booking process, a suspect's fingerprints are electronically transmitted to the state fingerprint repository in Tallahassee. A response is returned to the submitting agency in approximately 15 minutes, and the booking process proceeds. Once it is concluded, the suspect's complete arrest and fingerprint record is returned to the repository in Tallahassee, which forwards a copy to the FBI. Florida transmitted an average of 460 fingerprint files to the FBI each day in October 1998. Florida's fingerprint repository holds the fingerprint records of approximately 1.5 million individuals. Its AFIS has the capacity to store 2.5 million 10-print records and 100,000 latent fingerprints.

The state law enforcement department also maintains live-scan devices in the state's 20 juvenile assessment centers and in its five Department of Corrections centers. Florida's current AFIS was implemented in October 1997 and cost $6.3 million.

Massive Transition Project

The transition of the world's largest fingerprint and criminal history databases to IAFIS is a massive undertaking that moves forward even as more than 50,000 print cards pour into the FBI for processing each day. "We can't let current activities slack just because we're in transition," said Jolma, the CJIS computer specialist. A transition task force meets daily to iron out not only hardware and software issues associated with the intricate IAFIS system, but also personnel matters such as training, work schedules and office assignments, he said. During the transition, FBI personnel attacked and eliminated a backlog of more than a million fingerprint cards that had been submitted for processing, according to Jolma.

In accordance with the FBI's preparation timeline, IAFIS will assume operational capacity for its core functions beginning in July. When IAFIS becomes fully operational, the federal government will have completed its obligation under the original IAFIS plan. However, for IAFIS to be completed as a national system, as opposed to a federal system, it is imperative for states to upgrade their internal fingerprint services so they can contribute and receive images and data in a timely fashion for the benefit of criminal justice and noncriminal justice information users nationwide, according to Gary R. Cooper, executive director of SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics.

Forty-nine states had automated fingerprint identification systems as of March 1998, according to the FBI. "Some states are already sending us data, and other states are close to sending," Jolma said.

Those that do take advantage of IAFIS will have access to one of the most effective law enforcement tools ever created, one that would amaze not only those who first noticed the unique characteristics of fingerprints more than a century ago but also those who first considered the modernization of fingerprint services just a decade ago.

Eric Johnson is a writer/researcher with SEARCH, based in Sacramento, Calif., with funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice. This is an edited version of an article from SEARCH's Technical Bulletin.