Fingerprint standard still elusive

Status of IDENT/IAFIS Integration

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Two months after a Justice Department inspector general warned of stalled progress on interoperable fingerprint systems, no settlement has been reached on a uniform fingerprint technology standard.

According to a December 2004 Justice inspector general report, progress toward making all biometric fingerprint systems fully interoperable has stalled, partly because Justice, the Homeland Security Department and the State Department had not agreed on a uniform fingerprint technology standard.

That declaration came in a follow-up to a March 2004 report, in which DOJ's inspector general detailed a disturbing case, where border officials twice released a man attempting to enter the United States illegally. The man then returned to the country unlawfully, journeyed to Oregon and raped two nuns — killing one.

Immigration agents who detained the man never learned of his lengthy criminal history because the immigration and law enforcement fingerprint databases were not linked.

Currently, immigration and criminal fingerprint systems do not share information, which prevents immigration officials from recognizing criminals and wanted aliens in their custody.

The number of fingerprints each system collects is part of the loophole. The FBI uses a 10-fingerprint system, called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. The Homeland Security Department uses a two-fingerprint system, called IDENT, for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. Complicating matters further, the National Institute for Standards and Technology disagrees with the Homeland Security and the State departments on fingerprint standards.

"We're currently at about 75% and we will continue to integrate IDENT and IAFIS at all the ports of entry, in the secondary processing area, by the end of this year," said Kimberly Weissman, US-VISIT spokeswoman.

NIST recommends 10 fingerprint images for US-VISIT enrollment in its NIST Patriot Act Recommendations, citing accuracy. State contends that additional prints would slow down travel and increase costs.

Some members of academia support NIST's position. In September 2004, Stanford Management Science Professor Lawrence M. Wein testified before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, that a two-finger biometric US-VISIT program compromises security. His statements stemmed from a study on the ability of US-VISIT to accurately match visitors' fingerprints against a watchlist containing stored fingerprint images of suspected terrorists.

He called his findings "disturbing." Terrorist organizations can exploit US-VISIT software'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 sand paper to produce "poor quality images."

Wein bolstered his point with the 2002 NIST study, entitled "Matching Performance for the US-VISIT IDENT System Using Flat Fingerprints," which stated that current staffing levels and the two-finger system have little over 50 percent chance of detecting a terrorist during US entry. His study found that testing additional fingers of even those with poor image qualities achieves a 95 percent detection probability.

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