The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team needed a portable, lightweight tool to identify fingerprints and faces, but couldn’t find a vendor interested in building a solution for such a limited market. So they approached the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and asked them to develop an alternative to the 20-pound rugged laptop plus fingerprint scanner the teams carried, said Evelyn Brown, NIST’s spokesperson.

Brown said the FBI asked NIST to design and compile software requirements for the agency’s biometrics platform of choice, a handheld device with a touchscreen about the size of an index card. NIST researchers Mary Theofanos, Brian Stanton, Yee-Yin Choong and Ross Micheals brainstormed with the FBI team about what they required and, more importantly, developed a design that matched their needs: a user interface that could take pictures of fingerprints or faces and send the data wirelessly to a central hub for analysis, all with a minimum of touch strokes, she said. But the researchers wanted to take the program further.

“[Researchers noted that] smartphones with touchscreen devices were becoming available — could they scale their design down even more to fit a 2-inch by 3-inch screen?” Brown said. “And then the team created a demo program for just such an available screen — and it scaled beautifully.”

Separately, the FBI made use of NIST’s Mobile ID, a method to help officers identify people quickly and easily on the scene, instead of taking people back to headquarters to be fingerprinted. As part of that program, the agency developed a best practices document for next-generation portable biometric devices or a mobile ID system, said Shahram Orandi, who heads the MobileID best-practices effort at NIST.

Devices that gather, process and transmit biometric data — fingerprints, facial and iris images — for identification are proliferating, Orandi said. Previous work on standards for these biometric devices had focused primarily on getting different stationary and desktop systems with hardwired processing pathways to work together in an interoperable manner. But small, portable and versatile biometric devices are raising new issues for interoperability, he said. The new mobile biometric devices let first responders, police, the military and criminal-justice organizations collect biometric data with a handheld device on a street corner or in a remote area and then wirelessly send it to be compared to other samples on watch lists and databases.

“Before there were a lot of devices and everyone did their own thing so we wanted to come up with a way — like an informal contract — that so each manufacturer’s device can interoperate with each other and the information can be sent back and processed by the consumers of this information,” Orandi said.
Orandi said in the future, there is going to be a greater emphasis on smaller devices and decentralization, so officers have the ability to establish the identity of a suspect closer to the scene of apprehension.

“Some of the memories we have of booking stations downtown… I think will shift that paradigm closer to where something happens and will increase efficiency,” he said. “It also will create a force multiplier and let public safety do more with less. So instead of one person arresting someone and bringing them back to the home office just one person can do both tasks at the scene.”

Orandi noted that it is up to the industry to develop designs that can interoperate, as well as be lightweight and mobile.

“Based on what we’ve seen these devices have spanned the size of a paperback book to something larger,” he said. “I think these devices will approach the size of cell phone or PDA and that’s where they should ideally be usable for first responders.”