FBI stands by fingerprinting

Technology has produced cameras that can recognize faces, scanners that identify individuals by their irises and sensors that tie identity to the geometry of hands, but the FBI still prefers the humble fingerprint.

The bureau has used it for more than 75 years as a reliable way to identify individuals, and a top FBI official told a Senate subcommittee Nov. 14 that it's still the best way to identify terrorists and other undesirables who are trying to enter the United States.

Amid demonstrations of biometric identification systems that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called "dazzling," the FBI's Michael Kirkpatrick pointed out some of the practical aspects of fingerprints:

* The FBI already has 42.8 million fingerprints stored in a digital database.

* The agency has a billion-dollar computer system that can quickly retrieve and match prints on file with prints from a crime scene or a visa application.

* Fingerprints are the most widely used means of identification around the world.

* The U.S. system is compatible with fingerprint databases maintained by Canada, the United Kingdom and the international police clearinghouse Interpol.

Kirkpatrick, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, was addressing a hearing on technology that might be useful in combating terrorism. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee's Technology, Terrorism and Government Information Subcommittee that the FBI is developing a plan for expanding its practice of collecting and checking fingerprints to U.S. embassies and consulates overseas.

Deploying fingerprint scanning equipment to U.S. posts abroad would enable immigration officials to check the fingerprints of visa applicants against databases to avoid issuing visas to people with criminal records. Fingerprints also could be used to check arriving passengers to ensure that a person who arrives is the same one who applied for the visa, Kirkpatrick said.

Feinstein, the subcommittee chairwoman, has been an advocate of stricter enforcement of immigration laws that aim to keep undesirables out. The terrorist attacks Sept. 11 show that it is easy for terrorists to enter and remain in the United States, she said.

Biometric screening at airports might have detected some of the terrorists before they hijacked four airliners Sept. 11, she said. And biometric screening when they applied for visas might have prevented others from entering the country at all, she said.

However, more than 100 companies are "aggressively marketing" hundreds of kinds of biometric identification devices. "There's a lot of confusion," Feinstein said. She has proposed establishing a federally chartered center to study and set standards that help government agencies decide how to select and deploy biometric identification equipment in the fight against terrorism.

She also called for establishing a centralized government biometric database, possibly to be maintained by the new director of homeland security. She likened the plan to the Manhattan Project that was established during World War II to create the atomic bomb.

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