Millions of paper fingerprint cards collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are headed to the shredder as the agency completes a massive digital conversion to its new biometric database, called the Next Generation Identification System (NGI).
The bureau began implementing NGI in 2011 as part of an effort to expand its biometric data holdings and to replace its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The conversion to the new system included the digitization of more than 30 million identification records and as many as 83 million fingerprint cards, according to the bureau. The agency said the upgrade will allow law enforcement agencies easier and quicker access to criminal histories and fingerprints.
“It’s a great benefit to them not having a delay simply because we were still storing files in a manual format,” Penny Harker, head of the FBI’s Biometric Services Unit, said in a statement.
The FBI ran out of space for paper files at its Washington, D.C., headquarters more than 20 years ago. The bureau began shipping files to Clarksburg, West Virginia, where a campus for its Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division had been completed in 1992.
The FBI began construction of a new Biometric Technology Center in 2010 and continued converting to digital files. Nearly 9 million files have been converted in the past two years.
According to the FBI, the converted files consist of three categories: fingerprint index cards; criminal histories dating to at least the early 1970s; and civil identifications of people born before 1960 who were in the military or sought a government job. Fingerprint cards of notable criminals, such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, were saved.
The final phase of NGI included the addition of two new services. Rap Back allows law enforcement agencies to be kept up-to-date on changes in the criminal histories of people in positions of trust, such as teachers. The second service, the Interstate Photo System, provides facial recognition services to law enforcement agencies and includes an image-searching capability for photographs associated with criminals.
Privacy advocates have voiced concern about the bureau’s facial recognition technology. In a June 2014 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, more than 30 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that the NGI database could hold more than 50 million facial images by 2015, including those of millions of job seekers who have no criminal record.
“The facial recognition component of NGI poses real threats to privacy for all Americans, and could, in the future, allow us to be monitored and tracked in unprecedented ways,” the signatories wrote.