View Full Version : DHS launches pilot to integrate fingerprint databases with FBI

12-06-2007, 10:11 AM
DHS launches pilot to integrate fingerprint databases with FBI

By Jill R. Aitoro
December 5, 2007

The Homeland Security Department began this week testing a fingerprint scanning application in certain airports so it can tap into an FBI database to identify more accurately whether visiting foreigners may be criminals, illegal immigrants or terrorists.

Under a pilot project, foreigners landing in 10 airports -- including Dulles International Airport in Washington and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York -- have begun to have the fingerprint from each finger scanned when they enter the United States. In the past, foreigners only had two fingerprints scanned, from the right and left index fingers. The 10-fingerprint scan allows officials with DHS' United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, which manages the program, to check identities of visitors against the FBI's fingerprint database of individuals who have outstanding warrants or are criminals, or known or suspected terrorists.

Since launching the fingerprint scanning process in 2004, US VISIT had been matching foreign visitors' fingerprints to a database called the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System. By scanning 10 fingerprints, US VISIT expects to reduce the number of visitors erroneously matched to individuals the United States wants to bar from entering the country, such as known terrorists and criminals. When any match occurs, DHS officials send visitors to a secondary inspection area for further identity verification, creating delays for wrongly detained visitors, said Robert Mocny, director of US VISIT.

In addition, officials hope the 10-fingerprint standard will better identify criminals and immigration violators based on full or partial prints left at the scene of a crime, as well as latent fingerprints the Defense Department collects from terrorist safe houses or battlefields.

"There was a long-standing difference in terms of the operational requirement when immigration developed its first biometric [program]," said Scott Hastings, a partner at the federal IT consulting firm Deep Water Point and former chief information officer for the US VISIT Program Management Office who oversaw the development of the first fingerprint scanning system. "Two fingerprints worked, because the requirement was not forensic [investigation]; instead, it was just 'have we seen this person before.'"

DHS' goal is to eventually make the databases and processes fully compatible with the FBI's fingerprint database, called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which is based on 10-fingerprint scans. The database stores fingerprints of wanted criminals and known terrorists that are not in the DHS fingerprint database. "DHS' US VISIT and FBI's [Justice Information Services] division are working to make their two databases fully interoperable so that information about criminals and immigration violators can be shared," Mocny said.

"This change will allow for improved security at the nation's borders by providing more information to verify a person's identity, make the process faster and more accurate, and improve the nation's ability to identify terrorists and other dangerous persons," said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson. "Full interoperability between the two databases will ensure information is maintained within each repository consistent with each agency's mission, while allowing direct access to information in a seamless manner."

An interagency Integrated Project Team formed in 2006 to develop the Interim Data Sharing Model (iDSM) is pursuing a three-phase approach. The pilot program tested biometric-based interoperability with the exchange of a small subset of DHS and FBI data. Now, in phase two, agencies are working together to develop an exchange and search capability by September 2008. DHS and the FBI plan to have fully operational systems, including sharing of biometric and biographic data, by 2010.

But the project has not-so-easy technological hurdles to overcome, Hastings said. "I hope it's successful, but the real question will be whether [10-fingerprint collection] helps collaboration with FBI," he said. "For that to happen, DHS is going to have to ensure [that] the legacy system has been scaled and structural investments made to support modernization. This is not just about rolling out devices -- can the current system handle this?"

In addition, the exchange between databases will not be seamless or immediate. DHS and the FBI will maintain the two databases independently, providing a "read-only" version of fingerprint images for the highest risk individuals, Bresson said. And response times for database queries will be prioritized based on respective business needs.

These requirements and the potential for delays in information exchange beg the question of why two separate databases are necessary, which was debated years ago when US VISIT first launched, Hastings said. "There was an ongoing dispute, because FBI was concerned about the establishment of another fingerprint database and believed they should be servicing requirements governmentwide," Hastings said. DHS worked closely with Justice and came to the conclusion that because DHS had different operational requirements, the databases should be kept separate, Hastings added.

DHS and FBI officials declined to comment on the double database issue.

Operating redundant information systems and databases runs counter to the Federal Enterprise Architecture Initiative, overseen by the Office of Management and Budget. The purpose of the FEA initiative is to identify opportunities to simplify processes and unify work across agencies by consolidating processes and networks. OMB officials declined to comment on the separate databases.

The airports testing new 10-fingerprint scanning application are:

Boston Logan International Airport
Chicago O'Hare International Airport
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport
Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport
George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport
Miami International Airport
John F. Kennedy International Airport
Orlando International Airport
San Francisco International Airport
Washington Dulles International Airport