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FBI Prepares Vast Database Of Biometrics

Highly accurate face-scanning cameras are being developed.
Highly accurate face-scanning cameras are being developed. (Photos By Bob Shaw For The Washington Post)

The FBI's biometric database, which includes criminal history records, communicates with the Terrorist Screening Center's database of suspects and the National Crime Information Center database, which is the FBI's master criminal database of felons, fugitives and terrorism suspects.

The FBI is building its system according to standards shared by Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

At the West Virginia University Center for Identification Technology Research (CITeR), 45 minutes north of the FBI's biometric facility in Clarksburg, researchers are working on capturing images of people's irises at distances of up to 15 feet, and of faces from as far away as 200 yards. Soon, those researchers will do biometric research for the FBI.

Covert iris- and face-image capture is several years away, but it is of great interest to government agencies.

Think of a Navy ship approaching a foreign vessel, said Bojan Cukic, CITeR's co-director. "It would help to know before you go on board whether the people on that ship that you can image from a distance, whether they are foreign warfighters, and run them against a database of known or suspected terrorists," he said.

Skeptics say that such projects are proceeding before there is evidence that they reliably match suspects against a huge database.

In the world's first large-scale, scientific study on how well face recognition works in a crowd, the German government this year found that the technology, while promising, was not yet effective enough to allow its use by police. The study was conducted from October 2006 through January at a train station in Mainz, Germany, which draws 23,000 passengers daily. The study found that the technology was able to match travelers' faces against a database of volunteers more than 60 percent of the time during the day, when the lighting was best. But the rate fell to 10 to 20 percent at night.

To achieve those rates, the German police agency said it would tolerate a false positive rate of 0.1 percent, or the erroneous identification of 23 people a day. In real life, those 23 people would be subjected to further screening measures, the report said.

Accuracy improves as techniques are combined, said Kimberly Del Greco, the FBI's biometric services section chief. The Next Generation database is intended to "fuse" fingerprint, face, iris and palm matching capabilities by 2013, she said.

To safeguard privacy, audit trails are kept on everyone who has access to a record in the fingerprint database, Del Greco said. People may request copies of their records, and the FBI audits all agencies that have access to the database every three years, she said.

"We have very stringent laws that control who can go in there and to secure the data," Bush said.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the ability to share data across systems is problematic. "You're giving the federal government access to an extraordinary amount of information linked to biometric identifiers that is becoming increasingly inaccurate," he said.


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