August 22, 2014

FBI Files

CJIS Digitizes Millions of Files in Modernization Push

The era of sliding drawers full of aging FBI files is drawing to a close. Millions of fingerprint cards, criminal history folders, and civil identity files that once filled rows upon rows of cabinets—and expansive warehouses—have been methodically converted into ones and zeroes.

The digital conversion of more than 30 million records—and as many as 83 million fingerprint cards—comes as the FBI fully activates its Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, a state-of-the-art digital platform of biometric and other types of identity information. The system, which is incrementally replacing the Bureau’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS, will better serve our most prolific customers—law enforcement agencies checking criminal histories and fingerprints, veterans, government employees, and the FBI’s own Laboratory.

The conversion from manual to digital systems began more than two decades ago, when paper files outgrew the space at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. They were shipped to West Virginia, where the FBI built a campus in Clarksburg in 1992 for its Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division and leased warehouse space in nearby Fairmont for the burgeoning files. In 2010, CJIS broke ground on a new Biometric Technology Center and redoubled its efforts to digitize all the files. The most recent push—digitization of 8.8 million files in two years—not only added more data points to the NGI program, but also eliminated the need to move scores of cabinets full of paper into the new technology center.

“It makes those records immediately accessible to law enforcement across the country,” said Penny Harker, who runs the Biometric Services Unit at CJIS. She said fulfilling requests for fingerprint matches—which once took hours—now takes just minutes or seconds. “It’s a great benefit to them not having a delay simply because we were still storing files in a manual format.”

The FBI’s role as steward of so many identity files dates back to the 1920s, when the Bureau received 800,000 files from the U.S. Army. In the 1930s, the Bureau’s Identification Division compiled the largest-ever collection of fingerprints from files collected from partner law enforcement agencies.

The files that comprised the bulk of the digital conversion fell within three broad categories: criminal history files dating back to the early 1970s and before; civil identity files of people born prior to 1960 who enlisted in the military or applied for a government job; and fingerprint index cards. Files are maintained until individuals are 110 years old or dead.

After scanning and digitization, the paper files are destroyed, though original versions of historic files—fingerprint cards for John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker, and Clyde Barrow, to name a few—have been saved from the shredder.

“This is a monumental leap for us, because now we’re not taking months to get back with a positive identification, said Jeremy Wiltz, deputy assistant director at CJIS. “With our Next Generation Identification, we’re going to take that into seconds and sub-seconds.”

NGI is scheduled to be fully operational in September. The digital conversion effort is also projected to be completed next month.

'A Dying Art'

In a cavernous warehouse in Fairmont, West Virginia, FBI employees who have spent the better part of their careers searching through files have spent the past few months preparing them for destruction. They are masters of the Bureau’s unique manual filing system, which will soon be fully digital.

Fingerprint examiner“The employees that work in these files have worked here for years,” said Donna Ray, an area manager at the Criminal Justice Information Services Division's warehouse in Fairmont, West Virginia. She has worked for the Bureau for four decades. “They take a great pride in what they do. It’s the legacy system, and it’s going away.”

Ray remembers when as many as 300 staffers worked shifts around the clock—searching, filing, retrieving, and annotating fingerprint cards, criminal histories, and civil identity files at FBI Headquarters and then in West Virginia. They carried magnifying glasses on their belts and marked up fingerprint cards according to their unique loops, whorls, and ridges. All of that has been automated and digitized in the name of efficiency. She and her colleagues are adjusting to the new Next Generation Identification system but will always have a soft spot for what Ray considers “a dying art.”

“It’s historical,” Ray said. “It’s what the Bureau was built upon. The old Identification Division is what built the Bureau.”

"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Is it hard to give this up? Are you reluctant about what's going on?' And I'm not. I'm very excited about it," Ray added. "It's been a good 40 years. I've been very fortunate to work at the Bureau this long. But I'm very excited about where we're going in the future."