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Thousands of times each day across the United States a police officer books a suspect, stops a suspicious character near a crime, or pulls over a speeder, and takes his fingerprints. Or he pulls “latent” prints from an object at a crime scene. He zips the prints to a central fingerprint database, and gets an answer back immediately. The prints reveal what the suspect’s false name and identification concealed: He has outstanding warrants, or a rap sheet as long as the arm of the law. Or worse: He’s an escaped felon, armed and dangerous. That information will enable the police and courts to hold him-or save the life of that lone cop, who might otherwise be ambushed.

That’s the fantasy, anyway. Now, the reality: When police pull prints, they may indeed be able to make a speedy identification-if they can match the prints in their own city’s or state’s databases. Every state except West Virginia, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own identification operations are located, has a computerized “automated fingerprint identification system,” a.k.a. AFIS. Police in one of the West Coast states connected to the Western Identification Network may be able to find a match among neighboring states’ databases. But as law enforcers never tire of observing, crime doesn’t honor borders. If it can’t match a print in its own or its neighbors’ files, a state must mail it to the mother of all fingerprint repositories-the FBI’s 227-million-card (that’s right, card) collection-and wait a month for a response.

On July 30, this logjam is set to be dynamited. On that date, after 10 years’ development and decades of false starts and dead ends, the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), far and away the world’s largest and most complex such system, is due to come online. IAFIS promises to turn around criminal print searches in two hours and civil searches in 24. Even before the system starts up, however, its built-in limitations are becoming evident-and are threatening to grievously undermine its value for some of the crime-busters who will depend upon it most. And already the possibility looms that this centralized system, the product of an epic development saga, may soon be superseded, either by new “biometric” identification technologies (see sidebars “Beyond Fingerprints,” and “Secret Handshakes”) or by dispersed PCs that can do the same job at a fraction of the cost.

Storing and identifying fingerprints has been central to the FBI’s mission almost from the start. When J. Edgar Hoover became director and set out to expand the bureau in 1924, Congress directed that it take over and integrate the nation’s scattered print files.

The dream of instant identification via fingerprints was born just 10 years later, when the FBI tried to automate its fingerprint files by recording ridge counts (one of the most basic fingerprint measures) on punch cards. But 1934’s analog computers could only sort the cards into general classes, not match individual prints. The effort was soon abandoned-except in the movies. Hollywood, which hyped the bureau’s abilities long before The X-Files, recycled footage of G-men punching in fingerprint searches for decades.

Nevertheless, the bureau continued to be revered as the pace-setter in the arcane science, and art, of fingerprint identification. It refined the elaborate turn-of-the-century Henry System for classifying prints according to numerical values derived from their patterns of loops, arches and whorls, and built a massive mechanical beltway for transporting its millions of cards. But the FBI became the captive of its own early successes, anchored to obsolete approaches while the rest of the world went digital.

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