Evaluating the next generation of fingerprint technology

Devices can scan digital fingerprint images without individuals needing to press their fingers against a screen

Tech Beat Magazine

A suspect holds his palms next to his face during a police booking and has his fingerprints captured alongside his mugshot. A visitor passes her hand over a flat scanner without breaking stride to gain access to a secure courthouse. An inmate holds his finger in a portal to authorize a purchase at a correctional commissary.

Sound futuristic? Well, it actually is, but within the next few years, it might not be.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Sensor, Surveillance and Biometric Technologies Center of Excellence (SSBT CoE) recently finished a research and evaluation project of the next generation in fingerprint technology: devices that scan digital fingerprint images without individuals needing to press their fingers against a screen, and that do not require trained operators to collect the images.

The CoE performed a summary assessment of existing contactless fingerprint technologies, including both commercial products and prototypes funded by federal research. The report provided a detailed summary of what these technologies could do. This research showed that the majority of currently available commercial contactless scanners are intended to provide secure employee access to facilities and are not set up to work with automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS); it would take additional product development and research and development (R&D) investment to add that capability. This report will be posted later in 2013 on JUSTNET, the website of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) System, which includes the SSBT CoE.

“One of the main benefits is you capture the fingerprint without anything touching the finger, so it’s in a natural state,” says Lars Ericson, SSBT CoE director. “With traditional scanners, officers require special training to accurately collect prints, and if you compare prints taken by two different operators, there might be inconsistencies due to differences in their techniques. Also, the amount of force an individual uses to press down can change a fingerprint, as can residual oils from another person’s finger. If your fingers are very dry, or very worn from years of manual labor, that can also change the image. All of these factors can create problems.”

With contactless technology, the potential exists for higher quality images produced at a faster rate of speed with less supervision. Ericson says this could improve throughput when used for access control and could eliminate potential contamination from previous users. However, more R&D and evaluation work is needed to realize and confirm these benefits. That is where this work by the SSBT CoE provides an important foundation. Ericson notes that the project’s reports, although publicly available, will be of more interest to the research community than to the public safety community at large.

“We’re starting to see these come on the market, and we want to get ahead of technology and understand it before state and local agencies start adopting it. We want to stay ahead of the technology curve,” Ericson says. “I think that is really important with emerging technologies. You don’t want to try to play catch-up and try to understand applications after they’re already out in the field.”

As part of this research project, the SSBT CoE also performed a study of the performance of contactless fingerprint technology as compared to traditional scanners. Data from three contactless scanners, one commercially available and two U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) prototypes, were compared to four traditional contact scanners used in the field, and to rolled ink fingerprints. (CoE partner West Virginia University conducted a fingerprint collection from 500 individuals that became the comparison dataset for the research.)

The evaluation results showed less match performance for the contactless systems when compared to traditional fingerprint scanners. Ericson says it isn’t surprising that the contactless systems did not perform as well as the others, given that the algorithms used in the research were developed for traditional scanners and were not optimized for use with the new contactless devices.

“What the research does create is a benchmark of sorts. It shows us where we are now and where we need to be,” he says. “NIJ and DoD are quite pleased with the results, which should be valuable to the research community.”

NIJ is planning to publish a report on the research through the NLECTC System and the National Criminal Justice Reference Service later in 2013, and NIJ and DoD are considering a follow-on effort for FY2014. Also, other researchers can access the fingerprint database through a request to West Virginia University. Ericson notes that this database of contactless and contact fingerprints from the same population has not existed before now and will aid the research community.

“What does this all mean for law enforcement? The contactless technologies could offer some unique and interesting advantages, but they’re not yet mature enough for widespread use,” Ericson says. “However, they may be ready for adoption within the next five years; agencies should not pursue this right now, they should allow it to become more mature.”

For more information on the programs of the Sensor, Surveillance, and Biometrics Technologies Center of Excellence, contact NIJ Program Manager Mark Greene at (202) 307-3384 or by email at mark.greene2@usdoj.gov. To learn when the reports are available, visit www.justnet.org and sign up to receive the weekly newsletter, JUSTNET News, and other breaking news alerts. 

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