ORLANDO, Florida — The FBI has invested considerable energy in recent months in marketing a massive new biometric database to local cops, whom the agency will rely on to help feed it billions of fingerprints, palm prints, mug shots, iris scans and images of scars, tattoos and other identifiers.
But it took senior FBI consultant Peter Fagan just nine words this week to capture the ambitious scope of the agency’s aims with the new system, which is gradually replacing traditional fingerprint identification with facial recognition and other biometric identifier technology.
“What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas anymore,” Fagan told a roomful of police executives at the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Orlando on Tuesday.
He said that reaching the FBI’s goal of better tracking criminal suspects from town to town depends on local cops’ ability to adopt increasingly sophisticated new technologies and to share their data with federal law enforcement. He urged police to begin to “pack the record[s]” by collecting as many high-quality biometric identifiers from arrested criminal suspects as possible.
“We’re not only talking mug shots,” he said. “We’re talking scars, marks, tattoos and other descriptors. You can take up to 25 images [per arrest]. It used to be 10, but now you can take up to 25,” he said. “The upside is that every mug shot you collect is going to be searched against an unsolved crime.”
Oftentimes, Fagan told police, crime victims “remember tattoos but don’t remember anything else” about their assailants. Ultimately, “we should be working towards taking every biometric at every event,” he said, using an industry term for criminal processing.
The FBI’s database, known as Next Generation Identification (NGI), is just one of a dizzying array of investigative innovations being hawked to U.S. law enforcement agencies large and small, nationwide. While technology has transformed nearly every industry, few have changed as rapidly — or with as much federal and corporate encouragement — as local law enforcement.
That fact was evident last weekend in the main exhibit hall of the cavernous Orlando County Convention Center, where hundreds of vendors sold everything from ballistic underwear and high-powered weaponry to an 18-wheel mobile command center and analytic software that tracks gang members’ communications on social media.
“We need a range of weapons and equipment to respond and protect our fellow citizens and protect ourselves,” he said. “That equipment is never meant for offense. It is meant to help us bring bad people to justice.”
Throughout the four-day convention, federal law enforcement agencies seemed at times to be jockeying with private industry defense contractors and smaller vendors to see who could better dazzle visiting police chiefs.
The NGI system has been in development since 2010 and currently holds about 68 million fingerprints, 19 million mug shots of about 8 million criminal suspects, 9.5 million palm prints, a million tattoo photos and 100,000 iris scans, Fagan told police executives.
The system has come under fire from privacy rights advocates who decry the growing store of federal databases and fear that the FBI’s new system will eventually be cross-referenced against other data already being aggregated by private industry data brokers — including medical, financial, legal and driver’s license records, as well as license plate reader location data and national security digital surveillance streams.
Across the exhibit hall, Miguel Caballero, a Colombian designer who makes discreet bulletproof clothing for mostly Latin American politicians and heads of state, said he checks prospective clients against a U.S. Treasury Department list of narco-traffickers and terrorists, as well as Interpol and other international criminal databases, before agreeing to design a bulletproof garment.
Still, he acknowledges that once he has sewn the owner’s name into the seam of a product, he has no control over what the client does with his work.