Biometrics and Crime: What Is and Isn’t Possible in Law Enforcement

July 28, 2022     |    6 minute read

Biometrics and Crime: What Is and Isn’t Possible in Law Enforcement

July 28, 2022     |    6 minute read


We’ve seen biometrics in the movies. The brave space captain rushes to the ship’s helm and initiates a voice-driven self-destruct sequence to stop his ship from falling into enemy hands. Or our protagonist lands on an alien planet and gets a full life-form scan and technical data readout on his handheld device. Or perhaps it’s a criminal’s image being uploaded into a crime database only to have the facial identification system place him in a train station while trying to flee. Biometrics is often used in movies and shows in sophisticated and interesting ways. Will we start to see things like this happen in our day-to-day lives? Are we seeing them already? 

Past Use Biometrics in Law Enforcement

With so much futuristic imagery coming out of Hollywood, we tend to think of biometrics as something for the new millennia. Biometrics screening in law enforcement dates back over a hundred years. In 1902, police officers in New York were using biometrics to identify criminals. By the 1920s, the FBI had created a central repository of criminal identification data for U.S. law enforcement agencies. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI was managing a library of 100 million fingerprints just 25 years after creating that repository.   

With hundreds of millions of records under its management, the FBI created the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) in the 1970s. With AFIS, a suspect’s print is taken to a lab. There, the latent print is captured with a camera or scanner. The print image is saved in a database, where it can be compared to other prints already in the system. If a hit is obtained, a law enforcement agency can investigate the suspect. Perhaps that “match” leads to a development in the case. 

Of course, criminals don’t always keep to one place, and the need to check across state lines is important in rooting out bad actors. To help this cross-state investigation, law enforcement expanded to “Integrated AFIS” (IAFIS), and fingerprint identification has expanded from law enforcement to border protection and VISA screening. There is currently much more sophisticated technology for biometric capture, storage, and data extraction than in the early AFIS days. Today, Automated Biometric Identification Systems (ABIS) handles the one-to-many comparisons of fingerprints, faces, or irises—checking single biometric identifiers against a gallery of samples. 

How Biometrics are Really Used in Law Enforcement

Sure, everyone would like to believe what they see on TV when it comes to biometric identification. Unfortunately, picking up a coffee cup using a pen and dropping it into a plastic bag is a disservice to true fingerprint analysts’ care and technique when they study a crime scene. Hollywood often overlooks the importance of the rigid set of controls that are legally required when processing latent prints. And since the results of that process could put someone in, or free someone from prison, it’s good that there are such rigid controls. Latent examiners spend years studying and being advised by certified examiners in order to process, analyze, and compare fingerprints properly, despite what the grizzled detective might have you believe on TV. 

Facial matching isn’t cast in a much more accurate light. Suppose you’ve ever seen a movie where a criminal suspect is identified by a street corner camera walking away from a crime scene and is subsequently found guilty based on those images. In that case, you should know that it is pure fantasy. Facial identification is not evidentiary. In other words, people can’t be arrested based on that street corner video. What can happen, however, is that identification can be used as an avenue to ask questions of a suspect. If the person is guilty, hopefully, that interview leads to evidence that leads to a future arrest and conviction.    

Speed is a huge factor in law enforcement. There’s truth amidst “The First 48” moniker that the popular show uses. The number of promising leads tends to drop after the first days of an investigation. But this is another aspect of law enforcement that TV doesn’t get quite right. While we might see a fingerprint search come up with a match in seconds, that is not usually the case. Fingerprint matching can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. By bringing in ABIS technology locally, one local law enforcement agency in Florida was able to develop a burglary suspect using faster than average latent print identification. 

Biometric identification platforms can’t help what is portrayed on TV. Still, the best-in-class platforms provide several advantages that help overcome some of the hurdles law enforcement agencies encounter when fighting crime. Top-tier tools like AwareABIS are built to support the operator. They have integrated tools like FaceWorkbench that guide the user through the facial comparison process with the support of the industry standard FISWG guidelines.   

Any examiner (or any person) taking the stand amidst a trial will be scrutinized. Something as simple as incorrectly inputting otherwise non-critical information (e.g., subject date of birth or address) can be called out at trial. With Aware’s tools, there is no need to enlist other applications like spreadsheets or image-enhancing platforms to help with biometric comparisons. More importantly, the biometrics system documents analysts’ processes and decisions. Since there is less room for error with fewer external applications, there is less that can go wrong in a biometric analysis.  

The Future of Biometrics in Law Enforcement and Biometrics Screening

Not even Hollywood can predict how biometrics will be used in law enforcement. Two key developments have the potential to yield some pretty big leaps in crime fighting, however, and they are both already underway.  

The first involves advances in DNA testing. Many law enforcement agencies are putting Rapid DNA testing in place. This newer automated DNA process develops a DNA profile from a sample in just 1-2 hours, with no human interpretation or lab needed. DNA testing may go from months to hours, which will give law enforcement officials a considerable speed advantage. For one thing, potential matches can be identified when suspects are still in custody, giving officials the chance to question or hold persons of interest much more quickly. 

The second potential leap forward in biometric use in law enforcement involves something only about as big as a peanut—your eye. There is a lot about your eye that is special. Just like your fingerprints, your irises are unique to you. They don’t change as you age and are difficult to spoof. Unlike your fingerprints, though, you can’t easily alter them. While your fingerprints can’t be permanently changed without surgical or chemical alteration, a week of tough landscaping—for example—can temporarily make some fingerprints unreadable. Your iris, however, is naturally protected and isn’t influenced by ordinary outside factors. Until now, the equipment required to perform iris collection has been prohibitively expensive. Costs are coming down now, however, and the FBI has stood up an iris matching database.   

Recent advances have brought us closer to some of the fiction portrayed in crime shows. We’re already processing information like biometric data at a faster, more accurate, and more effective rate. And that is likely only to improve going forward. When it comes to law enforcement, crime, and biometrics—art may never totally imitate life, and that’s probably a good thing.  

Click here for more on the future of biometrics in law enforcement and to read how AwareABIS™ can support your fingerprint, facial and iris recognition needs.


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