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The Biometric Center of Excellence

Biometric images

You’re seen it before in spy movies—someone gains access to a secret room through a thumbprint or eye scan.

It’s not just fiction anymore. Systems like this now exist in both the private and public sectors. They're based on what's called “biometrics”—measurable behavioral and biological (anatomical as well as physiological) characteristics that can be used for recognition.

Over the years, biometrics has been incredibly useful to the FBI and its partners in the law enforcement and intelligence communities—not only to authenticate an individual’s identity (you are who you say you are), but more importantly, to figure out who someone is (by a fingerprint left on a murder weapon or a bomb, for example), typically by scanning a database of records for a match.

With more and more biometric technologies being developed, we felt it was time to take the next step—to launch a coordinated effort to harness the benefits of these capabilities for law enforcement and national security purposes. That’s why, in late 2007, we established the Biometric Center of Excellence (BCOE), located at and managed by our Criminal Justice Information Services Division in West Virginia.

    FBI Biometrics Over the Years

The FBI has been using various forms of biometric identification since its earliest days—from photographs and fingerprints in its first years (and assuming responsibility for managing the national fingerprint collection in 1924)…to our Laboratory’s pioneering work on raising latent finger, palm, and other soft tissue prints from evidence…to applying handwriting analysis in the Lindbergh kidnapping case in 1932.

In the 1960s, we began automating and computerizing our collections of biometric data. As technology advanced through the 1980s and into the 1990s, we revitalized our tried and true fingerprint processes by partnering with law enforcement to develop our Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which reduced response time of search requests from months to minutes. Now, we’ve begun development of the Next Generation Identification System, a logical evolution of IAFIS that will ultimately include additional forms of biometric identification—like faces, tattoos, and palm prints.

In a related area, we began DNA analysis in our Laboratory in the late 1980s and sponsored the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which came online in the late 1990s. CODIS, which has revolutionized the use of the “genetic fingerprint” to establish guilt or innocence in criminal investigations, stores DNA profiles from around the country in a series of national, state, and local databases—all linked via computers for use by crime labs everywhere.

And we continue to look to new scientific advances to increase the range and quality of our biometric identification capabilities.

The FBI has been a leader in biometrics for years. We began managing the nation’s fingerprint collection back in 1924. Starting in the 1980s, we helped pioneer the use of DNA—a kind of “genetic fingerprint”—as a way to establish guilt or innocence in criminal investigations. More recently, we’ve begun exploring the addition of biometric identifiers like faces, tattoos, irises, and palm prints into our automated fingerprint system. See the sidebar for more details on our biometric initiatives over the years.

The BCOE will build upon our expertise in using biometric science and technology to solve cases and protect the nation. Key activities will include:

  • Coordinating current FBI biometric systems—such as our systems for fingerprints and DNA—and exploring new biometric technologies that can be turned into usable tools for law enforcement and intelligence agencies;
  • Engaging a team of experts to address privacy and other important legal, policy, and procedural issues related to the use of biometric systems.
  • Working with partners in government (such as the Department of Defense), academia (like the University of West Virginia), and the private sector (such as the International Association for Identification) on research and development efforts;
  • Ensuring interoperability between FBI biometric systems and other federal, state, and international biometric systems; and
  • Developing biometric training for our law enforcement and intelligence partners, establishing biometric standards, and certifying biometric products.

Progress so far. Although it’s just getting started, the BCOE already has some accomplishments under its belt: a 10-month study assessing the current biometric landscape and providing a roadmap for the future; the creation of a Facial Identification Scientific Working Group; and soon, a new Biometric Center of Excellence website will be available to the public. 

In 2014, the BCOE will move into a new facility—the Biometrics Technology Center—co-located with the Department of Defense’s Biometrics Task Force, a partnership that makes sense given our joint biometric collection and identification efforts in recent years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

- Biometric Center of Excellence
- Next Generation Identification
- Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)
- Criminal Justice Information Services Division

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