Law Enforcement Biometrics Month: Next Generation Identification

The FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is a logical step in the right direction for law enforcement in the United States. Managed by the Bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services division (CJIS), NGI brings an exciting amount of next generation efficiency to critical law enforcement procedures that used to take an unbelievable amount of time considering their sensitive nature.

NGI became fully operational in September and has been a mainstay topic in the news ever since, but the three letters stand for a whole lot more than just a database of criminal records and a faster way to catch the wanted criminals of of US. NGI is essential to preventing deviations from the law just as much as it is for correcting them, and an examination of the program reveals a rich history in biometrics as wells as an answer to why some people still associated fingerprints with crime.

Grama Mugshot

The FBI’s NGI system contains more than just criminal records and biometrics. Its RapBack mode is used to report on citizens holding positions of public trust.

A History of Justice

The fingerprint as we know it – a symbol of the irrefutably unique nature of biological identity – was first discovered in 1788 by German anatomist Johann Christoph Andreas Mayer. He noticed the ridges on human fingertips as naturally different from one another.

Fast forward to today and fingerprints can help us pay for goods online or offline, speed us through airport security and help us punch in at work all thanks to the discovery that each print is completely unique.

In between those two landmarks, the discovery of the fingerprint and the mass commercialization of biometric technology, lies a large portion of human history in which fingerprints were synonymous with criminal investigations. Even today, shorthand for detective work in popular media is the act of “dusting for prints” to the point that if a character need to believably get away with murder on TV she better wipe down the scene of the crime and implement of harm on camera.

This year, the FBI’s hardcopy criminal database contained approximately 83 million fingerprint cards representing the identities of persons detailed in the Bureau’s 30 million plus records. That’s a lot of crime fighting put to paper and it represents some of the most famous cops and robbers scenarios in Western history.

When the criminal records had been successfully migrated to the NGI database, the FBI had a lot of wasted space being used to store the paper representing millions of people, dead and alive. Nothing says inefficiency like duplicate records, especially when one of said files takes up physical space, so the confidential hard copies were destroyed.

The Bureau didn’t burn them all, however, and in the spirit of recognizing its role in some of North America’s most pulpy folklore, it preserved the hard copy biometrics and biographics of legendary wanted person John Dillinger and criminal couple Bonnie and Clyde.

Multiple Modes Of The Law

Though fingerprints get the most popular attention in law enforcement, there is more to identity than just the tips of your digits. At this year’s Global Identity Summit in Tampa, Florida, the opening keynote set out to define what identity means in 2014. Duane Blackburn, conference co-chair and science and technology analyst at MITRE, divided it into three categories: biological, biographical and contextual.

Each of the three divisions has their own internal breakdown, and when it comes to biological identity in law enforcement the prints you leave behind are only half of the story. NGI operates using latent palm prints and facial recognition in addition to the ridges on the tips of a subject’s fingers.

NGI also operates in multiple capacities outside of searching and matching criminals. The most recent increment added to the FBI’s system included a function called RapBack which is used in preventing the wrong people from obtaining jobs of critical trust. This means that NGI doesn’t just contain wanted and incarcerated criminals, it also has records of upstanding civilians in it too.

RapBack allows authorized persons to receive notifications when people holding positions of public trust, like scout leaders, teachers and coaches of children’s sports teams, are involved in criminal activity.

Because having a file in NGI can seem like a controversial distinction, special measures are taken to ensure that the civilian database used for this mode of operation is kept completely separate from the system’s other functions, particularly the Interstate Photo System, which uses facial recognition to identify criminals.

Faster Than You Can Say “Handcuffs”

Speed is the name of the game in law enforcement. Every second spent bringing an arrest back to the station for booking or requesting a criminal file through the old means is time keeping officers from the ever vigilant pursuit of wanted persons.

NGI’s greatest benefit is that it saves law enforcement officers time without sacrificing accuracy and integrity. Manual fingerprint matches used to take hours, but the fully functioning  NGI can do that work in minutes.

Penny Harker, who runs the Biometric Services Unit at CJIS was quoted on the FBI website explaining: “It makes those records immediately accessible to law enforcement across the country… It’s a great benefit to them not having a delay simply because we were still storing files in a manual format.”

Deputy assistant director at CJIS, Jeremy Wiltz  further illustrated  the kind of improvements we’re talking about here, quoted in the same post as saying, “This is a monumental leap for us, because now we’re not taking months to get back with a positive identification. With our Next Generation Identification, we’re going to take that into seconds and sub-seconds.”

The FBI’s NGI system is a testament to the long history of identity in law enforcement. Not just the culmination of a decade’s worth of collaboration, innovation and hard work, but centuries of biometric law enforcement manifest as a useful tool.

Stick with FindBiometrics though the rest of October as we continue Law Enforcement Biometrics Month. Follow us on Twitter and use the hashtag FBLawEnforcement to get involved in the conversation.

October 8. 2014 – by Peter B. Counter