2 digits or 10?

Mismatched fingerprint standards still a problem for national security

More than three months after the Justice Department Evaluation and Inspections Division's inspector general warned of risks from fingerprint systems that are not interoperable, federal agencies haven't agreed on a uniform fingerprint technology standard.

Progress toward making biometric fingerprint systems fully interoperable governmentwide has stalled partly because Justice, the Homeland Security Department and the State Department cannot agree on a uniform standard.

Justice's inspector general said people are at risk as long as those systems are not interoperable and offered as evidence a case in which border officials twice released a man attempting to enter the United States illegally. The man succeeding in entering the country and traveled to Oregon, where he raped two nuns — killing one of them.

Immigration agents who detained the man never learned of his lengthy criminal history because immigration and federal law enforcement fingerprint databases are not interconnected. In addition, the systems differ in the number of fingerprints each collects. The FBI uses a 10-fingerprint system, called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. DHS uses a two-fingerprint system, called IDENT, for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

In testimony last year before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, Lawrence Wein, a professor of management science at Stanford University, said a two-finger biometric standard for the US-VISIT program is inadequate.

With current US-VISIT staffing levels, the two-finger system has only slightly more than a 50 percent chance of detecting a terrorist trying to enter the United States, Wein told lawmakers. But he found that testing additional fingers, even those with poor image qualities, achieves a 95 percent detection probability.

Wein testified that terrorist organizations could exploit US-VISIT's weakness — the difficulty in accurately matching poor-quality images of two fingers — by choosing terrorists with worn fingers or those who have used surgery, chemicals or sandpaper to produce poor-quality images.

"Our recommendations hinge on the assumption that terrorist organizations as sophisticated as al Qaeda will eventually attempt to defeat the US-VISIT system by employing terrorists with poor-quality fingerprints," he said.

In a December 2004 report, Justice's inspector general suggested that searching a 10-fingerprint database for two fingerprints is 25 times more expensive than searching for 10 prints because specialized searches require more computer processing resources. State Department officials contend that collecting more than two fingerprints creates travel delays and increases costs.

Agencies disagree on fingerprint standards

Officials at some federal agencies prefer using 10 fingerprints for greater accuracy in identifying people. But at other agencies, the preference is for using only two fingerprints, which some officials say is less expensive and time-consuming.

Agencies that prefer using 10 fingerprints include the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Those favoring two fingerprints include the Homeland Security Department and the State Department.

— Aliya Sternstein


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