100 Years of Fingerprints and Criminal History Records

FBI celebrates an innovation milestone and looks to the future of biometric identification

The inside of “Machine Gun” Kelly’s Notorious Deceased file, including the back of a fingerprint card, with his photo, and his fingerprints.

The inside of "Machine Gun" Kelly’s Notorious Deceased file at CJIS in West Virginia includes his fingerprint card, photo, and fingerprints. Kelly, whose real name was George Kelly Barnes, was a gangster and kidnapper who reportedly said "Don't shoot, G-men" when he was arrested in Memphis in 1933.

When someone sends the FBI a digital request for a fingerprint comparison from anywhere in the country, they usually receive a response within seconds. That's no small feat given that the Bureau's Next Generation Identification System, or NGI, contains more than 161 million fingerprint records.

"It’s no wonder the NGI System is renowned as such a vital tool among our law enforcement partners everywhere—not just with state and local departments across the country, but also among our international partners throughout the world," said FBI Director Christopher Wray during a ceremony marking a century since the Bureau established a central fingerprint repository to help the country's law enforcement agencies identify and capture criminals. The NGI System is housed and managed by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division on a secure campus three hours west of Washington, D.C., in Clarksburg, West Virginia. 

Director Wray spoke at a July 10, 2024, event at the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia, marking 100 years of fingerprints and criminal history records at the FBI.

Transcript / Visit Video Source

Director Wray joined past and present CJIS leaders, lawmakers, FBI staff, and dozens of retired fingerprint examiners at the July 10 event, which celebrated 100 years since the Bureau established its Identification Division on July 1, 1924. The new division consolidated 810,000 fingerprint files from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, and the National Bureau of Criminal Identification, which had been the keeper of crime data for the International Association of Chiefs of Police since 1896.

Wray described the history of fingerprint technology in investigations spanning a century.

"I’m proud that we’ve maintained that focus on growing our capabilities, because there’s simply no other way to remain as effective as a law enforcement and intelligence agency when the threats are as dynamic and evolving as they are today," Wray said. He also highlighted the introduction of new biometric modalities—like facial recognition, palm prints, and iris scans—as innovations that will help the FBI and its partners better carry out their missions into the future. NGI's National Iris Service, for example, allows users like police and prison staff to enroll iris images without physical contact, linking a subject's irises to their respective fingerprint records. "You want to talk about the textbook illustration of innovation," Wray said. 

To help mark the occasion, artifacts spanning the fingerprint repository's century-long history were on display for visitors. Items included vintage fingerprint cards, magnifiers, and the colored pencils that fingerprint examiners have used for generations. And a gallery of images illustrated the progression of fingerprint technology—from taking impressions with ink rollers and paper cards to the digital mobile devices that many agencies use today.

"There is not a doubt in my mind that the American people are safer because of your work."

FBI Director Christopher Wray

Director Wray addressed FBI CJIS at a July 10, 2024, event marking 100 years of the FBI's fingerprint program.

Director Wray delivered remarks during the ceremony that marked a century since the Bureau established a central fingerprint repository.

FBI Director Christopher Wray and Acting Assistant Director of CJIS Tim Ferguson look at fingerprint cards

FBI Director Christopher Wray and Acting Assistant Director of CJIS Tim Ferguson view fingerprint cards.

"This anniversary highlights the evolution of the biometrics program within the FBI," said Tim Ferguson, acting assistant director of the CJIS Division. "It’s amazing to me that we had the same type of fingerprint index from 1924 until 1999, where you would have hundreds of file cabinets in a warehouse with fingerprint cards that required all the manual identification and comparisons."

Up until the turn of the century, in fact, the role of fingerprint examiners changed very little. When a set of fingerprints arrived for comparison to the millions on file, examiners—using a special cataloging system—hunted through rows of filing cabinets to find the right cards to compare against.

For more than 100 years, fingerprints have been used to help make positive identifications. The investigation of Frank Grigware in 1910 was one of the young Bureau's first and longest-running cases. An FBI agent fingerprinted former Iraq leader Saddam Hussein after he was pulled out of his spider hole on December 13, 2003.

"It was a manual process," said David, a supervisory management and program analyst at CJIS. David’s FBI career started in 1988 as a fingerprint examiner at FBI Headquarters before the CJIS Division moved 450 employees to its new campus in West Virginia in 1995. In those early days, he said, "everything was paper."

Hundreds of fingerprint examiners worked in shifts 24 hours a day to keep up with an ever-growing number of requests. "When I came into the picture in 1988, it took us a month, sometimes longer, to respond to a fingerprint check," David said. "It took a very long time because of a backlog and how long it took to do that manual process. Today, we do it in seconds."

In 1999, the implementation of the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) heralded the era of digitized fingerprints at the FBI. Millions of paper cards were digitally scanned and made accessible via computers. This gave examiners more efficient tools to do manual examinations.

The end of the 20th century marked the beginning of the end of paper fingerprint cards. Tens of millions of cards were digitized for more efficient processing and identifications. 

In fiscal year 2023, manual examinations by CJIS personnel made up just 3% of requests—or two million entries. Most comparisons are made automatically. Last year alone, CJIS received and processed 74 million fingerprints. Earlier this year, CJIS registered its one-billionth electronic transaction.

"Ninety-seven percent of the fingerprints we get into our system are automated," Ferguson said. "It’s almost an immediate response back to our local, state, and private partners when requests are made."

For the more than 600 personnel in CJIS's Biometric Services Section, processes have changed, but the mission hasn't.

"In terms of the fingerprint examiner's role, the work was the same in that your training, experience, and skill at comparing fingerprints did not change," David said. "What changed were the tools you had to accomplish that comparison."

Microfilm table and light board, along with folder fingerprint kits.

A microfilm table and light board, along with folder fingerprint kits

A Five-O fingerprint device used to capture fingerprints in the field.

A Five-O fingerprint device used to capture fingerprints in the field

Microfilm reader, which is used to view and print images on a microfilm reel.

A microfilm reader is used to view and print images on a microfilm reel.

Sorter used by the Response Section, to sort fingerprint cards.

A sorter used by the Response Section to sort fingerprint cards

Quick Capture Platform (QCP) kit.  This is the first mobile platform used by the FBI.  The current Mobile Biometric Application replaced it.

A Quick Capture Platform kit was the first mobile platform used by the FBI.

Fingerprints training manual.

Training manual for fingerprint examiners

In 2014, NGI replaced IAFIS and expanded the number of biometric modalities well beyond fingerprints to include irises, palm prints, tattoos, scars, and marks. "Whereas the fingerprints will always be the staple and backbone of identification, we're always looking for ways to revolutionize the way we identify individuals," Ferguson said. "One of the things we’re focusing on when it comes to technology and advancement in biometric services and identification modalities is how can we assist the local police officer, the local detective, the FBI agent that’s on the street to conduct criminal and counterterrorism investigations, and provide those services in real time."

The FBI manages DNA—another highly accurate identification modality—separately at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). CODIS contains DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local participating forensic laboratories. CODIS was designed to compare a target DNA record against the DNA records contained in the database—much like the NGI System does with fingerprints.

The ceremony at CJIS included dozens of retired fingerprint examiners, some of whom spent their entire careers navigating cavernous warehouse spaces full of cabinets and fingerprint cards, quietly making the indisputable connections that helped close cases. 

"I’m really excited for them to see how far it's come and to see what we're doing now with technology," said David, the former fingerprint examiner.

Wray said the centennial anniversary is a tribute to the generations of FBI employees who kept pushing the Bureau forward.

"They’ve shown us that, while our adversaries can be, at times, formidable, working with our partners across law enforcement, we—the good guys—can be unstoppable," Wray said. "And I believe that if we continue on this road, with an enduring commitment to innovation and our partnerships, we’ll stay on the cutting edge of criminal justice technology."

Timeline: Evolution of Biometric Identification

1896: The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) established the National Bureau of Criminal Identification for the compilation and exchange of criminal identification data.
1902: The first known systematic use of fingerprints in the United States was installed by Dr. Henry P. DeForrest to prevent applicants from having better qualified persons take their tests. This was established with the New York Civil Service Commission.
1904: The fingerprint system was adopted by the United State Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. John Ferrier and Major M.W. McClaughry began fingerprinting all inmates at the federal prison. These fingerprint records became the beginning of the U.S. Government's fingerprint collection.
1924: Establishment of the FBI’s Identification Division by Acting Director J. Edgar Hoover. Fingerprint files from Leavenworth prison and the National Bureau of Criminal Identification were consolidated, totaling 810,188.
1933: The Civil Identification Section was established within the Identification Division. The United States Civil Service Commission turned over more than 140,000 fingerprint cards of government employees and applicants.
1933: A Latent Fingerprint Section within the Identification Division was established. Specialized technicians make technical examinations of latent or inked prints.
1944: The Identification Division grew so large, it had to be moved to a federal armory larger than a football field.
1958: The Identification Division received its 150 millionth fingerprint, submitted by a Boy Scout for his merit badge.
1972: The prototype automatic fingerprint reader, called FINDER, was delivered, and installed at the FBI. FINDER was set to be used by the Identification Division in daily production operations with goals of duplicating human technician's visual and mental processes.
1983: The Identification Division completed the conversion of its criminal fingerprint searching from manual to automated searching. This allows the division to perform computerized fingerprint searches on virtually all of the fingerprint cards it receives.
1990: Congress appropriates $185 million for the first three years of Identification Division's Revitalization & Relocation (R&R) Project funding. FBI Director Sessions and Robert C. Byrd determine that West Virginia is the best new location for the Identification Division.
1992: Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS) forms within FBI Headquarters alongside the Identification Division. The Latent Fingerprint Section (Disaster Squad) gets realigned with the Laboratory Division from the Identification Division. Three hundred employees are hired to work at CJIS Complex in West Virginia.
1997: The CJIS Wide Area Network (WAN) is installed among all 50 states and the backlog reaches 2.9 million fingerprint cards, an all-time high.
1999: Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) becomes operational and the Bureau identifies its one-millionth fingerprint transaction.
2000: The FBI's Flyaway teams acquire the technical capability to capture remote locations internationally and submit them electronically into IAFIS.
2004: Department of Defense leadership authorizes a biometric identification system as a pilot effort, thus the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) which stores, searches and matches biometric data, was born. ABIS was modeled after the developing Next Generation Identification System.
2007: CJIS Division provides its first records testimony in a court of law. In this landmark case, an FBI fingerprint examiner provided expert witness testimony in the case "State of Illinois v. Cornell Drapes." Cornell Drapes, on trial for murder in Chicago, was convicted based on this expert testimony.
2013: The National Palm Print Service (NPPS) is established, dramatically improving law enforcement access to palm prints previously stored within local, state, tribal, and federal databases.
2014: The FBI announced its Next Generation Identification (NGI) System had achieved full operational capacity. The NGI System expanded the Bureau’s biometric identification capabilities, ultimately replacing IAFIS while adding new services and capabilities.
2015: The FBI dedicated its new 360,000-square-foot Biometric Technology Center (BTC), located on the campus of Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The BTC facility enables the CJIS Division to advance biometric technologies.
2017: A fingerprint image taken from a digital photograph was submitted to the NGI System from Texas Department of Public Safety. The search produced an investigative lead and helped solve a child exploitation case of a predator who was taking and sharing child pornography.
2019: The NGI Interstate Photo System grows to 93 million civil photo, criminal photos, and scars marks and tattoo images. Of this number, over 38 million criminal photos are available for facial recognition searching by law enforcement agencies.
2020: Following a robust and successful pilot program, the NGI Iris Service reached full operational capability. The iris image repository contains 1.38 million enrollments submitted from federal, state, and local databases.
2023: NGI Missing Persons Services was launched to provide a fingerprint-based to identify unknown decedents and resolve missing person cases.
2024: The The National Palm Print Service repository maintains more than 30 million unique palm print identities and more than 66 million individual palm prints tied to those identities.
A fingerprint kit from the 1930s.


The digitization of millions of FBI files that were stored for decades in vast repositories of file cabinets spells the end of an era for the files and for the FBI employees who managed them.

Transcript / Visit Video Source