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Explainer: Biometrics in Law Enforcement


Law enforcement is arguably the largest user of biometric technology and Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS) is the police’s most utilized biometric tool.

Automated fingerprint identification is the process automatically matching one or many unknown fingerprints against a database of known and unknown prints. Automated fingerprint identification systems are primarily used by law enforcement agencies in order to identify a person suspected of committing a crime or linking a suspect to other unsolved crimes.

AFIS is a biometric identification (ID) methodology that uses digital imaging technology to obtain, store, and analyze fingerprint data. The AFIS was originally developed by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for criminal cases.

Fingerprinting, as a form of personal identification, is a refined methodology that is proven in practice and accepted in courts of law. AFIS itself has been around for more than 25 years. The FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) holds many of the fingerprint sets collected in the United States

Launched in 1999, the FBI’s database is used by federal and local law enforcement agencies to solve and prevent crime and catch criminals and terrorists. IAFIS provides automated fingerprint search capabilities, latent search capability, electronic image storage, and electronic exchange of fingerprints and responses. IAFIS is the largest biometric database in the world, housing the fingerprints and criminal histories for more than 70 million subjects in the criminal master file, along with more than 34 million civil prints. Included in its criminal database are fingerprints from 73,000 known and suspected terrorists processed by the U.S. or by international law enforcement agencies.

Many states also have their own AFIS. AFISes have capabilities such as latent searching, electronic image storage, and electronic exchange of fingerprints and responses.

Many other countries and regions, including Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, Argentina, Turkey, Morocco, Italy, Chile, Venezuela, Australia, Denmark, the International Criminal Police Organization, and various states, provinces, and local administrative regions have their own systems, which are used for a variety of purposes, including criminal identification, applicant background checks, receipt of benefits, and receipt of credentials, such as passports.

European police agencies are now required by European Union legislation to open their AFISes to each other to improve information sharing to combat terrorism and investigations of cross-border crime. The U.S. Government is leading innovation in the AFIS field by proposing to add multi-modal biometrics, including face, iris, facial, voice and even tattoo recognition to its existing Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

Law enforcement is also increasingly relying upon the use of DNA-based technologies as an aid in solving crimes. Although not yet at the point of other biometric technologies in terms of speed, DNA is being used to process criminal suspects to separate the guilty from the innocent. It is also being used to identify victims and to match convicted offenders to outstanding crimes.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. government laid the groundwork for a system of national, state, and local DNA databases for the storage and exchange of DNA profiles. This system, called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), maintains DNA profiles obtained under the federal, state, and local systems in a set of databases that are available to law enforcement agencies across the country for law enforcement purposes. CODIS can compare crime scene evidence to a database of DNA profiles obtained from convicted offenders. CODIS can also link DNA evidence obtained from different crime scenes, thereby identifying serial criminals.

In order to take advantage of the investigative potential of CODIS, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, states began passing laws requiring offenders convicted of certain offenses to provide DNA samples.

Currently all 50 states and the federal government have laws requiring that DNA samples be collected from some categories of offenders. While the establishment of DNA data banks has been well underway in the United States for a long time, Canada only recently approved DNA database establishment.

The third emerging biometric technology that law enforcement agencies are now testing is facial recognition. Authorities in the U.S. and United Kingdom authorities are reportedly testing the use of facial recognition to match images captured by surveillance cameras against databases of “criminals.” Law enforcement agencies are also beginning to use facial recognition and urban video surveillance systems to monitor neighborhoods and large scale public events such as concerts.

For more information about this topic, read our Special Report: Biometrics and Law EnforcementIn this issue we explore the FBI’s billion-dollar biometric surveillance program, the growth of facial recognition, standards development in biometrics and a special report from Biometrics Research Group, Inc. providing an overview of the market size and biometric technologies available for the law enforcement market in the United States. read more

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