From Fingerprints to a New Era of Biometrics

The retiring chief of the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division began as a fingerprint technician and went on to shepherd the FBI into the era of biometrics.

Video Transcript

Narrator: Fingerprints. For more than 100 years, the ridge formations and patterns on our fingertips have provided the best and most accurate measure of individual personal identities. Our prints don’t change and no two are alike.

Since 1924, the FBI has been the nation’s central repository for fingerprints, which arrive by the thousands each day. The Identification Division handled the massive task of categorizing and making the prints searchable. In the mid 70s, the FBI moved to digitize new and archived fingerprints to make searches easier and reduce turnaround time.

It was at this time, in 1975, that Tom Bush joined the FBI as a fingerprint specialist. In 30 years, he would be put in charge of the division that manages the fingerprint database—the Criminal Justice Information Services Division. But in the early days, he pushed a mail cart filled with fingerprint cards and worked on the floor of the massive repository at FBI Headquarters.

Thomas Bush, Assistant Director, FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division: It was very much a production-assembly line type process, so the prints would be classified, then you would get the prints that came to that unit and you had to do so many an hour. And you would go search a small segment of the way the prints were classified would lead you to a drawer or a cabinet—would lead you to a cabinet, then maybe lead you to a drawer—and then maybe lead you to a small set of prints or sometimes a larger set of prints.

Narrator: Loops, whorls, arches. Skilled examiners developed methods of finding the needle in a haystack. They relied—and still do today, in some cases—on a complex formula for categorizing prints, but also on unusual traits and characteristics they spotted.

Bush: And I always looked for one identifying part. You weren’t looking at the whole 10 fingers. I looked at the card and I was looking for that one kind of abnormal fingerprint pattern or something that stuck out on that fingerprint. And I would concentrate on that finger, looking for that matching abnormal aspect. Then when you would find it you would pull it out, then you wanted to look closer and they did have a little glass. I actually keep one on my desk—kind of a reminder of where you’ve come from, where you started. And you could use that, the little magnifying glass, and you would look in there and you could make a confirmation that that was in fact identical.

Narrator: It could take 30 to 45 days to process a fingerprint request in 1975—no small thing for a law enforcement agency that wanted to know if the person they were holding was wanted for another crime.

Bush: So the system was becoming irrelevant, quite frankly, and fortunately people had enough foresight to recognize that—that what good is it in this day and age for me to send a fingerprint in if it’s going to take that kind of turnaround.

Narrator: In 1977, as Bush left the Identification Division to become a special agent, prints were being digitized to accommodate the growing need.

Bush: So then you fast forward to 1999, IAFIS the new system goes live—Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System—and that system was built to do 62,500 fingerprints a day. Well, today we have 63 million fingerprints on file and the system—I think we hit a high mark a couple weeks ago of 183,000 fingerprints we processed in a day. And the majority of those fingerprints are back to the originating agency in 10 to 12 minutes.

Narrator: The Next Generation Identification system, as it is called, is in the works—a database of biometric information that still includes fingerprints, but goes even further, to other unique individual characteristics.

Bush: I like to say it’s going to be bigger, better and faster. It’s going to be able to handle more prints. We envision it handling 2 or 3 hundred thousand prints a day fairly routinely. You’ll see the day where you will take photograph, fingerprints, you’ll take an iris scan, you will take voice exemplars, they will be made to say maybe a standard set of lines, and then I believe there will be even DNA will be part of this. There will be a quick-capture capability with DNA and a quick processing as aspect of DNA. Again, all from people that we are authorized—that have come into the purview of the criminal justice system.

Narrator: The advances won’t replace reliable fingerprint data any time soon—just supplement it. Mr. Bush, who retired March 6 as Assistant Director of the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, recalls how, as an agent on the fugitive squad in Washington, D.C., he could sometimes determine if a suspect his squad picked up was their man.

Bush: There were times when I would look at him and say, “This isn’t the guy.” And I remember some of the senior agents saying, “Are you sure this isn’t the guy?” And I said, “If our guy’s got all loops, this guy’s got all whorls.” And they would look at you, give you that hard stare, but you know, that was a decision point. We’d let the guy go.

Narrator: Nearly 30 years after thumbing through file cabinets looking for prints, and later shepherding the FBI into the next generation of biometrics, Mr. Bush says fingerprints—still an accurate measure of individual identity—will always be a big part of his own identity.

Bush: The word fingerprints to me almost is really kind of the beginning and the end. It’s where I started in this business of the FBI and it’s where I’m ending up in this business of the FBI.

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