Beyond fingerprints: The FBI's next generation database

Published 27 January 2009

New, mammoth database will include not only enhanced fingerprint capabilities, but also other forms of biometric identification like palm prints, iris scans, facial imaging, scars, marks, and tattoos — in one searchable system

Here are two hypothetical crime cases:

  • Palm prints are taken from the scene of a diffused roadside bomb in Iraq. Later, an individual entering a New York airport is arrested on an unrelated charge. A full set of prints are taken during the booking process and submitted to the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system. A positive ID connects the man to the roadside bomb.
  • A ski mask-wearing bank robber leaves with his loot, and witnesses tell police they noticed a red skull tattoo on his hand. A search of NGI’s Interstate Photo System for a red skull tattoo provides a potential candidate list that could ultimately lead to the identification of the bank robber.

The FBI says that these cases may be hypothetical, but in the not-too-distant future these scenarios could really happen thanks to the ongoing development of the Next Generation Identification system — a logical evolution of the agency’s current Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) (see HS Daily Wire of 16 January 2008 and 7 May 2008).

The FBI says that that evolution will include not only enhanced fingerprint capabilities, but also other forms of biometric identification like palm prints, iris scans, facial imaging, scars, marks, and tattoos — in one searchable system. 

Next Generation Identification
The new database will be a state-of-the-art identification system that will be “bigger, faster, and better” than IAFIS, says Assistant Director Tom Bush of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division:

  • Bigger” because it will increase the capacity of our fingerprint storage plus house multimodal biometrics records like palm prints and iris scans and still have room to accommodate future biometric technologies (that is, voice, gait, etc.) as they become available and prove reliable.
  • Faster” because it will speed up response time for high priority criminal ten-print submissions from two hours to about 10 minutes on average. There will also be a special category called the “Repository of Individuals of Special Concern” containing records of known or suspected terrorists, wanted persons, and sexual offender registry names. These records can be quickly searched to help law enforcement in the United States and American soldiers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan assess the level of threat during an encounter.
  • Better” because going beyond fingerprints as biometric identifiers will enhance the investigative and identification processes. For example, adding palm prints makes sense: some of the latent prints left behind by criminals at crime scenes are palm prints. NGI is also being developed to be compatible with other U.S. biometric systems and potentially with those of some foreign partners.

The agency emphasizes that Next Generation Identification is not a tool to expand the categories of individuals from who the fingerprints and biometric data may be collected, nor will it change existing legal authorities. It does not threaten individual privacy. As required with any federal system, the FBI is doing Privacy Impact Assessments on what information will be collected, how it will be shared, how it will be accessed, and how the data will be securely stored — all in an effort to protect privacy.

NGI is not strictly an FBI system. It is a joint effort and is being developed in collaboration with its primary users — the agency’s local, state, and federal partners, in particular the CJIS Advisory Policy Board and the National Crime Prevention Compact Council.

Over the next few years, we’ll be rolling out NGI capabilities incrementally so our partners will have the benefit of each capability as soon as it gets our stamp of approval,” the FBI says.