Automated fingerprint matching at FBI allows employees to shift to higher-value work

When a new civilian federal employee submits a fingerprint as part of their background check, it goes to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS) in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

There, the bureau checks it against its national database of criminal fingerprints, as it has since 1924, when the FBI took over responsibility for the nation’s fingerprint collection.

But with the bureau now getting nearly 200,000 fingerprint submissions a day, automation tools have allowed the bureau to process most of its incoming requests without any human intervention.

“When we automated, every step of that was able to be automated, at least in some sense,” said Gary Stroupe, a supervisory management and program analyst in the CJIS Biometric Identification and Analysis Unit, in an interview last month.

A file cabinet is removed from the floor in Fairmont, West Virginia. Some of the cabinets weigh more than 200 pounds empty. Millions of fingerprint cards, criminal history folders, and civil identity files that once filled rows upon rows of cabinets—and expansive warehouses—have been methodically converted into digital records over the course of two decades. (Source: FBI)

That automation has allowed the bureau to shed some of the more antiquated aspects of this biometrics work, such as physical storage.

When CJIS moved from Washington, D.C. to Clarksburg nearly 30 years ago, the bureau leased out part of a former shopping center and filled it with rows of filing cabinets that contained fingerprint cards.

“Someone had to actually take a fingerprint submission that came in and search through all those fingerprint cards, looking for a match. That was an incredible amount of work,” Stroupe said.

Even with as many as 500 trained fingerprint examiners working around the clock every day, the bureau faced a growing backlog that at its worst reached a million fingerprint submissions waiting for a match.

That all changed in the 1990s, when the  FBI adopted its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and began digitizing incoming fingerprints as well those on file. This technology allowed the FBI to chip away at its backlog and also sped up the search process for criminal checks and civilian background checks from months down to hours.

These efforts only accelerated with the latest technological breakthrough, the 2014 Next Generation Identification System, which brought improved algorithms that allowed the bureau to automate to a point where it could process up to 95% of its 180,000 daily fingerprint submissions “lights out,” Stroupe said, requiring no human intervention.

Stroupe said the bureau’s leadership, faced with these backlogs, didn’t need much convincing to experiment with these automation efforts.

“Trying to sell the idea of automation wasn’t a very difficult thing. It was almost being demanded of us,” he said.

The bureau’s automation efforts have gotten to a point where it can now turn around a criminal fingerprint check within five minutes, or a civilian background check in less than 20 minutes.

Employees at work on the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS, a national, computerized system for storing, comparing, and exchanging fingerprint data in a digital format. (Source: FBI)

In the years following the rollout of automation under NGI, the bureau’s Biometric Identification and Analysis Unit still had a large workforce, but not nearly the same workload. That led the bureau to more recently shrink the unit’s workforce by 20 percent, and instead move to them to higher-value work.

“Like most federal agencies, we have a lot of important work that doesn’t get the attention that it needs to get, because we have a lot of work and not as many employees as what we could possibly use. So we had to try and show these employees where that work might be,” Stroupe said.

The bureau held job fairs and put employees through temporary duty assignments to give them an in-depth look at new positions.

Stroupe said many of the bureau’s employees displaced by automation found work updating the criminal history of people in the database. The bureau still faces backlogs in that area because the states that supply that information still rely on paper-based systems that have not yet been automated.

“That really is the important side of if. If you identify someone using the fingerprints, a law enforcement officer or a civilian agency, what they’re really looking for is, ‘What is that criminal history behind it?’ If that’s not up to date, then you’re really not giving them a complete criminal history,” Stroupe said.

Over the course of a few years, the bureau reduced its headcount from 400-500 employees to fewer than 100.

“We didn’t just pull the plug all at once. As we slowly spun that down, there weren’t a lot of employees that had to be forced to move into something. They could see the work, they could see it was important and a lot of them volunteered to go into the other positions,” Stroupe said.

Looking back, Stroupe said the FBI’s automation efforts have yielded many winners: Law enforcement partners can now get results from fingerprint submissions in minutes, as opposed to weeks or months. The FBI now stores its fingerprints digitally and saves on the cost of physically storing fingerprint records. And the bureau has shifted hundreds of employees into other vital federal law enforcement work.

“Really the only one that wasn’t a winner in this entire process was the guy that owns that mall,” Stroupe said about the former shopping center the bureau had leased for storage. “He’ll have to find somebody else to lease that property.”

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