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Arrested Development

Clear back in the 1960s, says Peter Higgins, a former FBI deputy assistant director for information-services engineering, “J. Edgar Hoover decided it was about time the bureau started doing something with computers-and do it in six months or less.” In 1967 it launched the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) and began developing digital fingerprint readers. When the first operating models arrived 10 years later, the bureau proceeded to scan in its millions of “ten-print” fingerprint cards. But search capability lagged, and the FBI struggled through the 1980s to increase that capacity while automating document flow and transport. The bureau continued to rely on a hybrid paper/online system, much of it still in use today, based on 1970s technology that was obsolete when it was installed.

The typical sequence: A local police department mails its fingerprint cards to its state’s AFIS, which, failing to make a match, mails it on to the FBI. There, one of the bureau’s nearly 800 expert fingerprint examiners determines the print’s Henry classification. File prints of that classification are called up and a computer compares the mystery print’s minutiae-points where ridges end or branch-against theirs. The computer proposes a candidate match, which one examiner checks and another verifies.

Under this labor-intensive regime, it takes the bureau about 33 days to turn around a criminal fingerprint search. The delay is even longer at the other end-the police and other agencies that supply the prints of criminals, government job applicants and other subjects to be entered in the national database. A mid-1990s FBI survey found it takes them on average 118 days to process and mail in prints of newly arrested suspects. Paper shuffling eats up time, and agencies may not give priority to supplying a system they know will be slow to respond anyway. Not only will a suspect be released long before his prints show up in the system, he’ll have ample time to, say, buy a gun or get hired by a daycare center.

One result of this double logjam: In the first half of 1998, police around the country unwittingly released more than 5,000 fugitives because fingerprint IDs didn’t come back in time.

Even as the bureau struggled in the 1980s to meet soaring identification demands, the private sector and local governments leapt ahead. Several companies capitalized on the FBI’s early innovations to build truly automated AFIS equipment. As Kevin Wilkinson, a special assistant in the FBI’s Congressional Affairs Office who worked in the Identification Division in the 1970s, recalls, “the technology leapfrogged in a massive way” over the bureau’s own. States and cities, exasperated with the FBI’s slow progress, bought commercial AFIS rigs. Some have progressed to fully automatic “lights out” fingerprint transmission and searching, so called because no eyes need watch until the computer spits out the result.

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