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Fingers to the Wind

And so, on the eve of its long-awaited debut, the world’s largest computerized ID system is still a work in progress. Some backers and would-be users may be surprised and disappointed at its limitations. And questions of obsolescence already loom.

For instance, given the huge investment it’s now making in fingerprint-based information technology, the bureau has to be watching a bit nervously as other biometric technologies ease into the picture. Higgins sees DNA matching and iris scans, and perhaps even facial recognition, as promising fingerprint alternatives. Bonino and German both urge that CJIS add automated palm-print searches, which are already used in Europe. “Half of all prints left at crime scenes are palms,” notes Bonino.

Even if fingerprinting isn’t replaced by these recognition techniques, the FBI’s investment in large-scale, centralized data technology could be rapidly superseded by new computing techniques. German sees the emergence of what he calls “a new AFIS paradigm”-a decentralized identification network, somewhat like the Internet. In fact, the PC revolution is just now reaching the fingerprint field. Mainframe AFIS systems still run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But last June the upstart Phoenix Group in Pittsburg, Kansas, began offering an “AFIX Tracker” that, according to its president, Derald Caudle, searches minutiae points in all latent/ten-print combinations, holds 30,000 print records (enough for a small city)-and operates on a Pentium II Windows machine with an 11.5-gigabyte hard drive. The price: $17,000 for the software, or $950 a month to rent the whole rig. German’s Army lab took the first two.

German predicts the paradigm will really pop after this November, when the FBI will release Lockheed Martin’s minutiae-extraction software into the public domain. “It’ll be like phone-company deregulation. A lot of software companies will spring into AFIS.” Where only about 600 larger cities and agencies now have it, individual police precincts will get their own, German believes. Initially, at least, that should create much more demand for the FBI’s IAFIS, as the hub of a fast-expanding network. But what about when all those little AFISes learn to swap prints and searches directly, on the Internet search-engine model?

As prices drop, German foresees, “You could build your own AFIS.” Imagine. Instead of tracking each other down by name via Hotbot or AltaVista, we’ll trace each other’s fingerprints. Who was that woman at the party last night? Pull a print off her wineglass. In the near future, thanks to new technology, look for gloves to become very, very fashionable

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