Magazine article Management Today

Computers versus Crime

Magazine article Management Today

Computers versus Crime

Article excerpt

Anyone who has been burgled is likely to have received a visit from their local police scene-of-crime expert in search of fingermarks. The UK is one of the biggest collectors of fingerprints in the world. Around 900,000 useful marks are collected each year from the one million sites visited. These can be compared with existing databases to find out whether known criminals are involved and to spot links between crimes.

The problem is that the searches and comparisons are expensive, time-consuming and slow. This is because many of the local police-force collections are manual or only semi-automated. The national collection, mean, while, which is computerised, is housed at New Scotland Yard and administered by the National Identification Service (NIS). Police forces have to check the finger, prints of anyone who is charged against the national database to confirm their identification or to add a new record, but waiting for the NIS to perform this routine can take weeks.

That is all about to change, thanks to National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS), the 100 million computerised fingerprint database currently under development. NAFIS will hold the six million records of known criminals expected by the year 2000, along with two million unidentified marks from the scenes of crimes. Ultimately, each police force in the country will be able to access it via a graphical, user-friendly computer screen. The system will allow them to scan in marks that they have kicked up from crime locations, or from people who have been arrested, and produce a short-list of matches within a few seconds.

`NAFIS will be the biggest, most advanced, fingerprint recognition system in the world,' says Mark Goulding, the project's director. Larger numbers of fingerprints may be held in systems in California and Tokyo, he admits. `But NAFIS will be more flexible and powerful, for example in its ability to handle unidentified scene-of-crime marks.' The database, which will occupy four tera (million million) bytes, will comprise one of the largest magnetic disk stores ever built.

The system works by using algorithms to search for approximately 100 minute details in the ridges of each fingerprint. This method produces a far more accurate short-list than previous fingerprint recognition systems which look for larger characteristics such as loops, whorls and so-called tented arches. `Despite the huge size of the database, you are more or less guaranteed that, if the print is on file, it will be in the top few,' Goulding says. In fact, the technical specification requires that the target print, when present, should be listed among the top three in 99% of cases, and top in 98% of cases.

The database will help the police establish links between crimes by matching fingermarks found at separate sites. It should also improve management control by providing an audit trail of individual investigations. The system has been designed so that in future police will be able to use mobile fingerprint scanners to carry out on-the-spot checks at the scene of a crime. They could also use mobile sscanners to identify individuals arrested in the street, find out whether they have criminal records and, if necessary, charge them there and then.

NAFIS is due to begin a pilot implementation next year in eight forces and is-expected to be fully operational by mid-1998. It will then begin being rolled out to the remain, of the 43 police forces in England and Wales. The project should be complete by April 2001, when it will also be available to forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland. By the following year, it is expected to have paid for itself in the improved productivity of fingerprint officers.

The system exemplifies one way. in which technology can be exploited by the police to make sense of vast quantities of data. This is the key to how it can help fight crime, according to detective superintendent Ken Grange, the newly-appointed police adviser to the Home Office. …

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