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Senior Editor, Network World

Fingerprints Not Enough for Future Security Government Systems

Sep 24, 20095 mins
Access ControlBiometricsData and Information Security

The FBI and Department of Defense are undergoing massive security-system makeovers that will make more extensive use of DNA, facial recognition, iris scans and palm over the traditional fingerprints for security investigations.

In the emerging world of advanced security systems at the FBI  and Department of Defense, DNA, facial recognition, iris scans and palm prints will play a larger role in investigations than the traditional fingerprint. Both agencies have embarked on biometrics-system makeovers that may eventually include mass-scale DNA biometrics storage for investigative purposes.

 Under what’s called the Next-Generation Identification (NGI) program, the FBI is looking toward replacing its current Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) for a totally revamped biometrics system that over the years will not only be a repository for individuals’ fingerprints, but also store additional biometrics expected to include iris scans, 2D-to-3D facial imaging, palm prints, voice and DNA.

Slideshow: The changing face of biometrics

“We see the December, January timeframe for rolling this out,” said Kevin Reid, section chief for the biometrics services sector at the FBI, who spoke on the topic at this week’s Biometric Consortium Conference.

Though NGI will initially be a fingerprints repository like the existing IAFIS, palm prints are being added in as well. And 2D-to-3D facial imaging, iris, and especially DNA profiles are all of interest to the FBI for its NGI system in the future. Louis Greve, executive assistant director of the FBI’s science and technology branch, this week called DNA the most accurate biometric known today, along with fingerprints.

The U.S. Department of Defense has embarked on a similar biometrics project with its Next Generation Automated Biometrics Identification System (NG-ABIS). The older ABIS it replaces was basically a fingerprint-oriented system that has mainly been used in hunting down dangerous insurgents and terrorists in wartime Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the core of the DoD’s NG-ABIS is an upgraded database guarded under high security at a location in West Virginia. NG-ABIS was put in place earlier this year under a contact with Northrop Grumman. Corp.

Ken Lehman, vice president of identity management at Northrop Grumman’s information systems division in McLean, Va., says NG-ABIS is based on an Oracle database with Java Enterprise Web Services and includes a search engine from L-1 Identity Solutions. The older ABIS used the HP Superdome supercomputer for fingerprint storage.

NG-ABIS “has more scalability,” says Lehman. “We can add new modalities as they come into play, not just fingerprints. A new modality is palm prints, for example.” It’s anticipated that multiple biometrics types will help in more quickly and definitively identifying an individual for stronger match rates that add up to an individual’s biometrics match score.

The DoD has long kept a “DNA dogtag” database of enlisted personnel whose main purpose is helping identify those whose lives are lost in service. But for investigative purposes, one thing holding back use of DNA as a reliable identifier of an individual is the time and labor associated with analyzing DNA samples today manually in laboratories equipped for that purpose.

So the DoD and FBI are teaming on some things, such as sponsoring research on creating so-called rapid DNA analysis. It’s envisioned by some as a self-contained kit that would automate and speed the manual processes involved in DNA analysis today, which typically run from several hours to days, say experts.

“Each person has a unique DNA profile, except identical twins, and each person’s DNA is the same in every cell,” said Peter Vallone, research chemist in the biochemicals sciences division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who spoke on the topic in a presentation made at the Biometric Consortium Conference. He said researchers believe DNA doesn’t change over an individual’s lifetime.

NIST, in conjunction with academic institutions that include the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, is coordinating the research on rapid DNA analysis. The goal is to have a system that can take a swab of DNA, such as from the inside of an individual’s cheek, and have that testing completed as automatically as possible within an hour. It would be like “a lab on a chip,” he said. There’s no specific timeframe for introducing such as kit, and it will probably take several years, but there’s optimism it can be done.

The FBI’s long-term transition from IAFIS to the NGI biometrics system upgrade is being conducted under a 10-year $1 billion contract awarded to Lockheed Martin in February 2008, though a protest led by competitor IBM delayed the contract’s finalization under May of this year.

Ironically, IBM is a sub-contractor on the winning Lockheed Martin NGI contract, so IBM will be involved on the NGI project, points out Barbara Humpton, vice president, security and citizen protection in Lockheed Martin’s information systems and global services division.

It’s not yet clear what IBM’s exact role will be, though Humpton said the FBI just a few weeks ago approved a conceptual design plan as part of a critical review to decide elements of NGI. She said she wasn’t at liberty to discuss details, though it’s been made public that MorphoTrak has been selected for the 10-fingerprint biometrics piece of NGI. The role of other vendors will be made clear over time as additional technology reviews are done, says Humpton. The FBI is expected to start taking delivery of new computers for NGI early next year.

But it does seem likely the FBI will be taking a services-oriented architecture (SOA) route.

John Mears, director of biometric solutions at Lockheed Martin’s information systems and global services division, says the advantage of a services-oriented framework is that you can “plug in a different biometric modality, such as finger, face and iris.”

There’s the prospect ahead of adding a DNA piece, too, especially if the rapid DNA profiling technology is developed, he notes. This would be a game-changer for biometrics, he notes, subject to policies and laws associated with DNA around the world, not to mention the court of public opinion.