Chris Francescani

With FBI biometric database, 'what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas'

Agency officials defend police militarization and urge cops to adopt sophisticated technology to help identify suspects

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. 

'Monsters are real'

Hundreds of vendors at the convention hawked 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.
Chris Francescani

Even as outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a broad new Department of Justice review of policing tactics, training and techniques at the conference on Monday and urged cops not to let racial tensions be “swept under the rug” in places like Ferguson, Missouri — where the fatal August shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer sparked weeks of protests — FBI Director James Comey vividly defended law enforcement on another hot-button policing issue that re-emerged from the long Missouri summer: the militarization of local police.

“I know that this debate and some of the bumper-stickering of it has discouraged many of you, because you know in your gut the dangers that your folks face when they put on the uniform and the badge to go out and do their job each day,” he said.

“We tell a lie to our children … that monsters aren’t real,” Comey said. “Monsters are real. Monsters are barricaded inside apartments waiting for law enforcement to respond so they can fire rounds that will pierce ballistic vests. Monsters are real, and they are equipped with equipment designed to harm innocent people.”

“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.

Technology in the wrong hands

Some worry that sophisticated technology sold to police forces could fall into the wrong hands.
Chris Francescani

Near one corner of the convention center hall, Gregory Giuntini was marketing TacticID, a hand-held device that he said can read through translucent drug bags like a check-out scanner to determine the chemical makeup of evidence seized in illegal-drug busts. Lying on the display table was a plastic bag full of white powder meant to resemble cocaine. “For a department like the Philadelphia Police Department,” which makes about 21,000 arrests involving drug seizures annually, “it takes just a couple seconds to say, ‘OK, this is cocaine. This is heroin.’ It’s a screening tool,” Giuntini said. There’s a dark side to the law enforcement technology boom, though, that few vendors or the police who use their technology were willing to discuss: The equipment can fall into the wrong hands.

Giuntini said that about three years ago, when the technology behind TacticID was new to police use, a colleague at a rival firm took four of the drug and explosives detecting devices to Mexico City to demonstrate it for cops there. Drug cartel members tracked the man’s flight and robbed him of the devices as soon as he got off the plane.

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.

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