US creates terrorist fingerprint database
The US government is building a massive database designed to identify individual terror suspects from fingerprints on objects such as a tea glass in an Iraqi apartment or a shell casing in an abandoned Al Qaeda training camp.Skip to next paragraph
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The database is being created in part by forensic specialists searching for and preserving evidence overseas. They are collecting unidentified latent fingerprints in places once occupied by Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorists.
The information is feeding into a computerized system designed to match a name with an unidentified fingerprint.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff calls the program "a quantum step forward in security."
"(It) gives us the ability to identify the unknown, unidentified terrorist," he said in a recent speech. "It also creates a powerful deterrent for anybody who has ever spent time sitting in a training camp, or building a bomb in a safe house, or carrying out a terrorist mission on a battlefield."
Not everyone sees the creation of such a database as progress. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians say it could lead to a dangerous erosion of American rights.
"Our assessment of these systems is that many that are undertaken with a goal of identifying terrorists eventually become systems of mass surveillance directed toward the American public," says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
"When Secretary Chertoff says we are trying to identify people who were in safe houses in Iraq with terrorists, that is a very small part of the story," Mr. Rotenberg says. "The technology used to identify a terrorist in a safe house in Iraq is the exact same technology that can be used to identify a war protester in a Quaker meeting house in southern Florida."
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the completion of a database system that collects electronic fingerprints of both the index and middle fingers of every noncitizen entering the US. The system now documents 64 million travelers. The Homeland Security database is being linked with the FBI's database of more than 40 million subjects.
The effort prevented 1,300 convicted criminals and immigration law violators from entering the US, and blocked 1,000 others from gaining visas, according to Mr. Chertoff.
Now, Homeland Security is upgrading from a two-finger to a 10-finger system. In effect, it requires foreign visitors to submit to the kind of extensive fingerprinting usually reserved for criminals. But officials say that collecting all 10 prints ensures compatibility with the FBI database, and increases the investigative utility of the computerized system.
"Ten prints allows us to run not only against the database of known felons or known terrorists where we have fingerprints linked to a particular name, it lets us run against the databases we are collecting for latent fingerprints that are picked up in battlefields or safe houses or training camps all over the world," Chertoff said.
An unidentified latent print from a known terror safe house could provide an early warning by triggering an investigation if it matches someone trying to gain entry into the US, officials say.
Privacy advocates say the system is being presented to the American public and Congress as an antiterrorism tool. But they warn it could vastly increase the government's ability to track and investigate US citizens.
"It makes it sound as though this will have a limited purpose – terrorism, and a limited scope – non-Americans, but the reality is that the system is not going to be so limited," says Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation based in San Francisco. "They will be using it for every kind of law enforcement there is. They will be collecting fingerprints on Americans, and it will be used for every general purpose."
Fingerprinting is a subset of a rapidly developing area of identification science called biometrics. Researchers are studying how to identify individuals in a crowd by using computers to match unique facial characteristics to those same characteristics on a driver's license photo. The federal and state governments are assembling databases preserving the DNA of convicted criminals. And studies are underway to use eye scans to identify individuals. But by far the government's largest identifying database relates to fingerprints, and it may soon grow larger.