FBI fingers problem system

The FBI's computer system upgrade is supposed to enable FBI agents to gain electronic access to information in other agencies' databases, but one database is likely to prove troublesome — IDENT, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's collection of more than 4.5 million foreign visitors' fingerprints.

INS and the FBI are under orders from Congress to integrate their fingerprint databases, but despite efforts dating at least to 1997, the systems remain incompatible.

The problem is "flat" vs. "rolled" fingerprints, according to the FBI and the Justice Department's inspector general. When INS officers catch a foreign national who has committed a crime or is in the United States illegally, they take a "flat fingerprint" from each index finger, snap a photograph and enter them into the automated biometric fingerprint identification system, IDENT.

When FBI agents catch a criminal, they take 10 "rolled fingerprints" and enter them into the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS.

Then, when fingerprints are found at crime scenes or on evidence, or foreigners or criminals are apprehended, those fingerprints can be compared with those in the databases to check for a match.

Putting IDENT fingerprints into the IAFIS system could be especially helpful because state and local police have access to 60 million criminal records, including fingerprints, in the IAFIS system. Thus, a traffic stop could lead to the arrest of a wanted foreigner.

But when IAFIS tries to search the IDENT prints, it produces a 40 percent error rate, according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Mark Tanner, the FBI's information resources manager, insisted that IAFIS is highly accurate but conceded that "it is not wholly compatible with flat fingerprints."

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