Fingerprints FBI
New FBI technology will strengthen the bureau's fingerprint and palm print database while improving facial recognition techniques. Wikicommons

Dimples, creases and hair patterns could soon supplement the art of fingerprinting now that the FBI’s Next Generation Identification System is fully operational. The facial recognition system has yet to be proven effective but has police agencies as excited as it has privacy groups nervous. The ambitious technology, dubbed the NGI System by the bureau, has been in development for years in an attempt to expand the FBI’s biometric abilities.

Used as a form of identification, examples of biometric characteristics include an individual’s DNA, palm veins, retina, gait and voice characteristics, among other traits. Indeed, facial recognition is only one component of the FBI’s system.

“This effort is a significant step forward for the criminal justice community in utilizing biometrics as an investigative enabler,” the FBI said in a statement Monday.

"Rap Black" is one of the first FBI services to use the technology. It allows agents to receive “ongoing status notifications” on any criminal activity reported “on individuals holding positions of trust, such as schoolteachers,” the statement said.

Another is the Interstate Photo System, which deploys facial-recognition technology to help law enforcement, including probation officers, parole officers and more than 18,000 police agencies, compare images captured with cameras on the interstate system with those in criminal databases. The IPS has drawn the attention of privacy watchdogs, though, for its reported plan to mix mug shots with non-criminal images, including pictures from employment records and background-check databases.

“Currently, if you apply for any type of job that requires fingerprinting or a background check, your prints are sent to and stored by the FBI in its civil print database,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in August.

“However, the FBI has never before collected a photograph along with those prints. This is changing with NGI. Now an employer could require you to provide a ‘mug shot' photo along with your fingerprints. If that’s the case, then the FBI will store your face print and your fingerprints along with your biographic data,” EFF said.

The IPS, which is expected to collect 52 million facial images, is only one phase of the NGI system, the FBI said. It also includes enhanced fingerprint capabilities and could focus on beards and social media tendencies. Documents obtained by the EFF indicate the database will include 4.3 million civilian images that will be stored in two categories “Special Population Cognizant” and “New Repositories,” neither of which were defined. Bureau officials have argued the pictures will appear on a “candidate list” meant to produce an “investigative lead,” not an effective identification.

The FBI has almost completely eliminated the need for a manual fingerprint review and has reduced the fingerprint processing time to approximately 0.7 seconds, according to bureau figures. The next step is to improve on that, biometrically.

“The National Palm Print System will provide a centralized repository for palm print data that can be accessed nationwide,” the FBI said in an explanatory blog post. The new method aims to increase accuracy while improving search capabilities for an agent trying to identify a murder suspect, for example, who left only an imprint of his palm veins, not a traditional fingerprint.

While such police tactics have made privacy advocates nervous, a recent investigation by Boston police made it clear facial recognition technology remains far short of the capabilities found in science-fiction.

Police officials conducted a pilot facial recognition program at the Boston Calling music festival in 2013, working to match attendees’ faces with their social media profiles. They used software that identified people based on physical characteristics including skin tone, eyeglasses, torso dimensions and hair volume. The technology would have had Philip K. Dick -- whose works inspired cautionary tales like "Minority Report" -- rolling in his grave, only it proved largely unreliable and still years off the mark.

Jeramie Scott, national security counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, previously told the National Journal the new investigative techniques could come with strings attached. “One of the risks here, without assessing the privacy considerations, is the prospect of mission creep with the use of biometric identifiers,” he said.