Biometric systems are becoming increasingly important for identifying known and suspected terrorists. The use of emerging biometric technologies as a tool to counter terrorist attacks and fight crime is on the rise and two driving forces are behind this breakthrough. The first was the realization that 7 out of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attack were known to the authorities. These terrorists had used false identity papers to gain entry to the United States. If there was a biometric system in place, these terrorists could have been identified that they were using someone else’s identity to gain entry and could have been stopped. The second factor was the remarkable boost in computer processing power that allows speedy access between biometric devices and the databases that store the biometric data of individuals. With the increased speed, these databases are able to compare thousands of features in fractions of a second and provide useful answers within moments after a person has been detained or while an individual is still in custody.
Fingerprinting was the first biometric modality to be proposed as a crime-fighting measure in the late 1800s. The FBI then computerized the process of matching fingerprints in the late 1900s. Since then law enforcement and forensic technologies have truly evolved. The FBI now maintains the world’s largest database of biometrics and criminal history information known as the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system. This system is the next level in FBI’s biometric identification services and criminal history information and addresses the evolving local, state, national as well as international criminal justice requirements.
What are the evolving law enforcement and forensic technologies used to detect criminal activities?
With the infiltration of technology into every aspect of our lives, criminals are also finding innovative ways of committing crimes. Crimes such as identity theft, hacking of personal and corporate computers to steal confidential information, cyber stalking etc. are on the rise. Law enforcement agencies are faced with the constant challenge of preventing these crimes and are therefore turning to advanced biometric and forensic technologies.
Forensic technologies have made major advancements in a number of areas such as DNA analysis, image enhancement techniques for fingerprints etc. DNA analysis helps to unlock the mysteries of human identity whereas image enhancement is helping investigators to read clues even from very difficult fingerprints. Data mining of biometric databases such as the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) helps law enforcement to solve cases that would otherwise have been unsolvable a few years ago.
However, the advancements in forensic technology are built on centuries of progress in this field. It was born in the Middle Ages and progressed with the advancement of science and medicine in the 19th century. The wide use of fingerprints for personal identification further expanded its capabilities. The introduction of DNA analysis was perhaps the greatest advancement in forensic science in terms of analyzing evidence. Over the years, it has evolved from a being a laborious process taking weeks or months to a procedure that now can be completed in just 2 days.
Millions of forensic DNA tests have been conducted in the United States as well as throughout the world and police nowadays commonly use DNA analysis in their investigations. A revolutionary technique known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) allows obtaining the entire profile of an individual from a small and even a degraded or decomposed DNA sample. For example it is possible to produce a larger volume of DNA required for conducting tests from a single hair root or even the DNA from a coffee cup. This technique was used by DNA scientists to identify the victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Other areas of forensic science such as fingerprint technology have also achieved various advancements. It is now possible to detect latent fingerprints and is considered one of the most valuable types of physical evidence in today’s criminal investigations. Many years ago, police commonly depended on a brush to dust for fingerprints but now they can use any of the 250 different chemicals or instrumental techniques for enhancing fingerprints. They can also use different types of light sources or lasers to identify fingerprints that were hard to recover several years ago.
Furthermore, image enhancement technology is helping law enforcement officials to visualize evidence such as imprints that are left on hard surfaces as well as impressions that are made in softer surfaces such as sand, mud or snow. Any kind of impression can be significantly enhanced using a variety of non-destructive photographic techniques. Previously, the video or images captured by store cameras during a robbery were not sufficient to identify the robbers due to poor image quality. But today’s color enhancement and other technologies are able to clarify the image to the extent that it enables to make a positive identification of the robbers. Therefore the evolving law enforcement and forensic technologies – whether it’s DNA or fingerprints are not only helping to fight crime but also to prove the innocence of wrongly accused individuals.
What are the pros and cons of biometrics in law enforcement?
Converging physical and network access has long been an extremely important initiative for local, state and federal government agencies. The slew of internal and external data breaches simply prove that traditional methods such as cards, USB tokens or passwords are not enough to provide reliable security. Therefore, law enforcement is increasingly turning to robust biometric technologies as it is considered the most secure and accurate form of authentication.
Biometric technologies such as fingerprinting, palm vein, iris scanning etc. are robust and possess many features that security professionals look for in authentication solutions. They are able to address the security issues of today’s network and physical access systems. These technologies rely on computerized methods to identify individuals based on their physical or behavioral characteristics. Hence these methods are extremely accurate and very hard to replicate. It eliminates the problems related to forgotten passwords as well as makes hacking obsolete.
With biometrics such as fingerprint and facial recognition, it will be easier for law enforcement officials to spot and track dangerous criminals. Compared to a card or password based system, fingerprint biometrics is more user friendly and authentication is completed with simple swipe of a finger. Biometric authentication is heralded as the future of security systems as it not only drastically reduces the risk of security breaches but also eliminates any traditional security overhead. The primary advantage of fighting crime with biometrics is that it is unique and hence serves as an ideal candidate for authenticating individuals. It has been used as an identification technique as early as 1858 and the Scotland Yard Central Fingerprinting Bureau was established in 1901. Since then, fingerprint biometrics has proven itself as a reliable method of fighting crime.
Biometric technologies reduces password administration and other related overheads while increasing network security as a whole. This is because biometric traits are inherent to users and reduces the hassle of users forgetting or sharing their passwords. Biometric technologies however have some disadvantages. The fundamental challenge associated with this technology is that it tends to be somewhat intrusive as it is related to the human body. For example, many people might not be comfortable with providing their fingerprints because of its psychological association to the criminal justice system. Some people may not want to expose their eyes that are required in iris recognition.
Cost is another challenging factor in the deployment of biometric technologies. Iris scanning is the most accurate biometric technology available today but has a highly prohibitive cost factor associated with it. Iris scanning may also not be suitable for individuals with cataracts. Fingerprint biometrics, on the other hand, has a relatively lower price point and hence most widely deployed. There is currently limited legislation as to how biometric technology can be used. In spite of all these challenges, government and law enforcement agencies consider biometrics to be the future direction of crime fighting.