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.
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.
In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which instructs DHS to develop a single standard for all state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards. The ID is expected to include a biometric identifier. Many experts say the most likely candidate will be a fingerprint.
If adopted, that action would create for the first time a government database of fingerprints of virtually every adult American citizen. "This could come home to Americans very, very quickly," Rotenberg says.
Privacy advocates say they are hopeful that the new Democratic Congress will exert an aggressive oversight posture and study the implications of the fingerprint program before it is in place.
They point to the case of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield.
The case began in mid-March 2004, shortly after terrorist bombs ripped through commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, killing 191 people and injuring 1,400. After the attacks, Spanish authorities found fingerprints on a plastic bag with detonators.
The FBI ran the prints through its computer system and found no matches, but identified several close nonmatches. Mr. Mayfield was the fourth of 20 close nonmatches.
Three FBI fingerprint examiners studied the Madrid fingerprint, and concluded that it had been made by Mayfield.
Mayfield's print was in the FBI's database because he had served in the armed forces and had earlier been charged with a crime.
FBI investigators learned that Mayfield had converted to Islam and had married an Egyptian immigrant. He also had served as the attorney in a custody case for a man who was convicted of conspiring to aid the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Justice Department officials say this information was unknown to the three examiners when they matched Mayfield's print to the Madrid bombing.
Spanish officials had their doubts about the match. They rejected the FBI's conclusion and continued to investigate.
The FBI dismissed the skepticism of Spanish authorities. One official in the investigation wrote: "I spoke with the lab this morning and they are absolutely confident that they have a match on the print. No doubt about it!!!! They will testify in any court you swear them into."
The FBI began surveilling Mayfield and his family, including covertly entering his home and office. Mayfield was arrested and held in prison for two weeks.
Concerned about the possibility of a mistake, a federal judge ordered an independent analysis of the fingerprint. That analyst also concluded that the print belonged to Mayfield.
That same day, Spanish authorities identified an Algerian man as the real source of the fingerprint.
Eventually, the FBI retracted its earlier conclusion. Last month the Justice Department agreed to pay Mayfield a $2 million settlement and issued a formal apology.
The Justice Department Inspector General's review of the case earlier this year warned about using a large database like the FBI's. "The enormous size of the (FBI) database and the power of the ... program can find a confusingly similar candidate print," the report says.
Mayfield says he was singled out because of his Muslim faith.
The Justice Department concluded that the fingerprint examiners were not aware that Mayfield was a Muslim with a connection to a convicted Al Qaeda supporter when they made the initial match. But later the examiners became aware of those facts, contributing to the FBI's reluctance to investigate whether they had fingered an innocent man, according to the Justice Department review.
Asked about the Mayfield case after his Nov. 30 speech, Chertoff acknowledged that mistakes had been made. But he added that mistakes are made in the criminal justice system, and no one suggests repealing the criminal code.
"We should make our techniques better but we shouldn't throw the whole process out because there are inevitable mistakes," he said.