FBI fingerprints go digital

The FBI last week began to operate a new system that thousands of law enforcement agents nationwide will use to run criminal background checks by using fingerprints.

The new system, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), goes online after years of cost overruns. Project costs jumped from original estimates of between $470 million and $520 million when the contracts were first awarded in the early 1990s to a final price $640 million. But the system should be worth the cost, according to observers.

IAFIS will let the bureau search electronically through millions of fingerprints that state, local and federal law enforcement agencies submit when they conduct criminal investigations. Traditionally, running background checks by using fingerprints has relied heavily on human analysts, according to FBI officials.

James Jasinski, the FBI's program manager for IAFIS, said the new system should cut down the time to run the process fingerprint-based background checks to two hours in criminal cases. He said traditional fingerprint background checks can take from eight days to three months - too long for many officials who need background checks conducted quickly so they can make quick decisions on conducting investigations or setting bail.

Those long waits for processing fingerprints sometimes have resulted in a suspect apprehended for a minor crime being released on bail because arresting officers did not discover quickly enough via a fingerprint check that the suspect was wanted for other crimes.

"Those people will not be walking away anymore," said Peter Higgins, a consultant who specializes in biometric technologies, including fingerprint identification. Higgins served as the FBI's program manager for IAFIS for nearly four years. He said the new system should offer law enforcement officers a "powerful capability to track criminals quickly and accurately."

IAFIS also should give a more thorough picture of an individual's criminal history. Jasinski said a criminal may have on file with the FBI several sets of fingerprints, each collected after a different arrest. But because many criminals use aliases, not all of those prints and the accompanying criminal records are necessarily located in a single file.

Multiple identities make it difficult for human analysts to give law enforcement officers a complete picture of a suspect's criminal history, especially because the FBI's database contains close to 35 million sets of fingerprints.

The new automated system, however, will solve that problem by searching the entire database to find matches for fingerprints that law enforcement officials submit for processing.

"They can get answers back - accurate answers back - on the searches before the legal time limits that they can detain people," said Jerry Zionic, vice president for law and benefits enforcement at Lockheed Martin Information Systems Co., one of three contractors that worked on IAFIS.

Many law enforcement agencies will still send fingerprints to the FBI on traditional paper forms, according to Zionic. The IAFIS project includes electronic scanning of fingerprint cards so that they can be read and processed electronically.

Zionic said that with the completion of IAFIS, submission of fingerprints electronically to the FBI should increase in coming years. Electronic fingerprint technology "is almost like a field of dreams: Build it, and more will come," he said.

In addition to routine fingerprint searches for background checks, IAFIS also will search for matches for "latent" fingerprints - prints collected at crime scenes, rather than taken directly from an individual. But those searches, in which the FBI may get only one fingerprint or a piece of a fingerprint instead of an entire set of fingerprints, are expected to take longer than two hours to process.

Jasinski said the FBI also will use IAFIS to process fingerprints submitted by parties outside the law enforcement community, such as employers who run background checks on job candidates. He said those prints should be processed within 24 hours of submission. The FBI now charges $24 for such searches.

Higgins predicted that the demand for fingerprint checks will grow as the civil sector discovers IAFIS and as more states pass laws that require background checks for people applying for day-care or teaching positions. But state and local governments will get the most use out of IAFIS, according to Higgins.

"I think it's a good example of how the federal government can provide services to the states," he said. But IAFIS comes with a slightly troubled history. One FBI division originally was assigned to develop IAFIS and the National Crime Information Center 2000 project, which went online last month. The double burden contributed to escalating costs for both projects, according to observers familiar with the projects.

NCIC 2000 development was then handed off to another FBI division, an FBI spokesman told FCW. Both projects are now online.

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