BIOMETRICS, the science of using measurable physical characteristics to identify people, has added new weapons to the arsenals of law enforcement agencies, and as some of these new tools are connected to high-speed wireless communications they could become widely available to officers in the field, not just those back at headquarters.
Hand-held devices that can be used to digitally scan fingerprints and match the results against large databases are being tested by several law enforcement agencies nationwide, with officials at some saying that the benefits of biometrics are already clear.
The companies behind the products see uses that extend beyond local law enforcement activities, into such areas as homeland security and border control. They say the tools also have potential in the private sector, in banking and employee identification, for example, and that foreign governments have begun ordering them as well.
The Portland, Ore., police department has been testing a mobile fingerprint identification device since April. The unit, called IBIS and made by a Minnetonka, Minn., company called Identix, is slightly larger than an ordinary hand-held computer. It can scan fingerprints and then compare them with records kept by members of the Western Identification Network (www.winid.org), a consortium of law enforcement agencies in Western states with a database of more than 3.5 million fingerprint records.
If there is a match, the person's name appears on the screen, usually within a few minutes and in many cases accompanied by a mug shot. Capt. Martin Rowley of the Portland police said the device was a major time saver: it can eliminate a trip to a downtown booking facility -- 15 miles away from some districts -- where it might take hours for the system to process a person. ''That is the true bonus of the machine,'' Captain Rowley said.
The Portland department has 10 IBIS units, paid for with $250,000 in federal grants for the initial phase of the project, officials said, and it plans to add another 17 by November. Over the long term, if additional financing is approved, Portland officials expect to have 280 for their own use and additional units for use by other law enforcement agencies in the region. Using the current IBIS system as a hub, those other agencies, which may include state and county police departments, airport security departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could match fingerprints against the same database, said Sara Rosson, the identification technology coordinator for the Portland police.
The IBIS device is essentially a ruggedized Hewlett-Packard iPaq 3955 hand-held computer that has been modified by Identix. The company installs a fingerprint scanner and scanning software and adds cellular connectivity and communications software. The device creates digital images of fingerprints and wirelessly transfers them to an IBIS server, which is typically at an agency's headquarters, and then on to law enforcement agencies where algorithms match prints against records in databases. If there is a match, demographic information about the person is transferred back to the device's screen.
The devices cost $4,000 to $5,000 each, Identix officials said.
When they were introduced in Portland, concerns were raised about how they might be used, but police officials said the devices would be used only in circumstances in which existing laws had already allowed fingerprinting.
The department's policy on fingerprinting has not changed, said Charlie Makinnie, the mayor's liaison to the police. ''They have always had a policy where you have to have probable cause or reasonable suspicion,'' he said.
The IBIS unit is also being tested in Eagan, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb. There, too, the device raised public concerns, according to Kent Therkelsen, the Eagan police chief. He said the device was used only when the police already had legal authority to take prints. ''It doesn't change our laws, it doesn't change our ethics,'' Chief Therkelsen said. ''It is just a tool for a very specific niche.''
Eagan police used the device recently when a shoplifter provided dubious identification. While the suspect was still in the store, officers determined her identity and learned that there were active warrants for her arrest.
In addition to Portland and Eagan, the IBIS device is being used in Ontario, Calif. The Ontario Police Department deployed the devices in October 2001 and now has 50 in service, enough for use by about 85 percent of the on-duty patrol force, said Ann Punter, the department's forensics manager. According to a case study published by Identix, the devices were used more than 3,000 times in Ontario from June to October 2003, yielding more than 700 matches and leading to about 170 arrests. The device has also proved useful in death investigations, Ms. Punter said, having helped identify victims of a hit-and-run accident and a suicide.
Besides Identix, a handful of other companies offer fingerprint identification devices that are tailored for law enforcement. A law enforcement agency in Texas is expected to begin testing a new product from Motorola called Mobile AFIS at the end of September. Mobile AFIS is expected to be available for shipment in December, and government agencies in Serbia have ordered about 1,000 for use in law enforcement and other settings, said David G. Hall, Motorola's product manager for the system.
Motorola, through its Printrak products, is one of several providers of the large computerized systems that store the fingerprint records. These systems are called automated fingerprint identification systems or AFIS's.
The mobile automated system can match fingerprints against those records using radio communications or over a cellular network. It can also store up to 5,000 fingerprints on its hard disk, enabling the user to check a print without the need for wireless communications.
The system can run on modified iPaq's and other devices that run the Windows Pocket PC or Windows CE .NET platforms.
There is potential for sales in the private sector as well, Mr. Hall said. For example to verify identity during a banking transaction, a customer's fingerprint could be matched against one that is encrypted and stored digitally on a wallet-size ID card that could be swiped through the device.
Atsonic, based in Schaumburg, Ill., is another company that offers a fingerprint identification system. Called SweetFinger, the device is in the testing stage at several law enforcement agencies, said Joe Pirzadeh, the company's chief executive. It can communicate directly with law enforcement systems to match prints, Mr. Pirzadeh said, and it can cost $1,500 to $4,000 depending upon options.
The company also offers SweetFinger to identify and track students boarding and exiting school buses, and a Global Positioning System tracking option to monitor the location of the buses. The system has been deployed by the Ontario-Montclair school district in California.
Barriers against wide-scale implementation of biometrics tools in law enforcement remain, including cost. The technology is still new and expensive. But for many law enforcement officials, the hope is that the use of these tools becomes routine.
''I think there is little doubt that biometric technology will become day-to-day technology in police work in the very near future,'' Chief Therkelsen said. ''This is something that has been coming for a long time.''