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FBI debuts enhanced fingerprint database

The agency's new system is aimed at streamlining local, state, and federal agencies' processes for sharing fingerprint data.

The FBI today said it has unveiled a new system aimed at streamlining local, state, and federal agencies' processes for sharing fingerprint data.

The $680 million Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) is available to 15 states and several federal agencies; a number of other states are expected to have systems up and running within a year, the FBI said. The system is expected to cut fingerprint query response time down from two weeks to two hours, the agency said.

The FBI and other federal agencies have been looking for ways to utilize technology to streamline crime fighting, though some efforts have caused concerns about privacy invasion and other potential pitfalls. For example, lawmakers last month put the kibosh on Clinton administration plans to build a system dubbed the Federal Intrusion Detection Network, which would monitor government computer systems for unauthorized intrusions.

Other agency plans have been implemented, however. "The IAFIS is one of four new major technology systems that will equip law enforcement with tools of immense value to combat and prevent a variety of the worst kinds of crimes," FBI director Louis Freeh said in a statement.

The additional systems are as follows:

• The National DNA Index System, introduced in October 1998, which, according to the FBI, "allows for electronic interstate comparison and exchange of DNA profiles."

• The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, introduced in November 1998 as part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, "to prevent handguns, rifles, and shotguns from being purchased by convicted felons, wanted persons, illegal aliens, and the mentally ill."

• NCIC-2000, a "criminal records enhancement system serving 80,000 criminal justice agencies." NCIC-2000 was introduced earlier this month to replace the agency's old computer system, which had been in place since 1967.

The new fingerprint system will replace the partially automated, partially paper-based system in which law enforcement agencies mailed fingerprint cards to the FBI, where they were classified and compared with FBI records. That process took up to two weeks, the FBI said.

The new system compares submitted images with a database of fingerprints. Within two hours, the system will be able to provide an identification of the person and a criminal history, if there is one, the agency said.

"Timely identification information is particularly crucial in instances where a person has been charged with a crime and is awaiting a bail hearing," Freeh said in a statement. "In the past, many fugitives from justice and hardened criminals were released and fled before their set court dates because the criminal history information was not available prior to the hearing. The rapid response time that IAFIS offers will nullify this problem."

The FBI noted that along with criminal procedures, about half of the fingerprint submissions it processes are for civil purposes such as job applications for teachers and security guards. Those requests will be processed within 24 hours under the new system, the FBI said, adding that the old system could take up to 100 days.