By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
FOR OVER A hundred years now, fingerprints--each one laboriously inked and transferred to paper--have been a prime tool of criminology. But a recent technological development seems poised to change all that, and possibly to extend the scope of fingerprinting far beyond criminal identification. Law enforcement agencies across the country are giving the new system rave reviews; civil libertarians and privacy advocates are not so enthusiastic.
Digital Biometrics, Inc. (DBI), a Minnetonka-based company, has been at the forefront of the this technological revolution. The company, founded in 1987 by retired Control Data exec Jack Klingbert, manufactures a machine known as the "Tenprinter" which electronically scans fingerprints. According to Lou Petsolt, vice president of sales and marketing, DBI is the largest domestic supplier of the technology and has installed nearly 600 systems. It is widely used in Minnesota, and there are also systems in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Winnipeg.
According to Lieutenant Steve Heininger, supervisor of the Ramsey County Identification Unit, the Tenprinter has cut down considerably the amount of time required to book a prisoner. "You roll the finger across a glass template, and it lets the deputy see the image that is going to be printed. If it's not right, you can adjust it immediately. And there's no ink or mess," he says. Heininger's unit has run the fingerprinting unit for nearly two years after officials decided to centralize its use. Once the fingers are scanned, the prints are placed on cards and passed electronically to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). "The state has a database that should include everyone who has been arrested and fingerprinted in Minnesota," says Heininger.
But it's not just suspected criminals who are getting fingerprinted. In Los Angeles, welfare recipients are scanned for registration purposes; New York and other cities are considering similar measures. But Petsolt maintains that prints are not being used to conduct criminal background checks for AFDC applicants. "One woman [in LA] was receiving multiple benefits while driving a Mercedes. They want to make sure you are only in the system once and are not receiving multiple benefits," he says. And although no counties in Minnesota are currently fingerprinting recipients, Rich Neumeister, a citizen lobbyist for privacy concerns, fears that it's only a matter of time. "There's been discussion at the Department of Human Service [about this] in general. After all, Ramsey County was the leader in computerizing food stamps. I haven't seen any legislation yet, but there has been some talk on the national level. It seems like it may be coming," he says.
Whether or not recipients will be tagged, Heininger has plenty of clients to keep his unit busy. In addition to arrestees, officers fingerprint sex offenders (federal law requires the printing and photographing of pedophiles so they can be tracked following their release), and a variety of other individuals. "It's being used to conduct background checks for certain occupations such as security guards," says Heininger. He also says that gun permits and some city liquor licenses require applicants to be printed.
What's especially troubling to privacy rights activists such as Evan Hendricks, editor and publisher of Privacy Times, is not that people are being electronically fingerprinted, but what kind of information is being attached to their prints and who has access to those files. "There are no privacy laws for this. We can't protect individuals from unauthorized use," he says. Adds Neumeister, "The question is who is going to have this information. There has to be a centralized database." For now, the centralized database known as AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) is hooked up between local authorities and state agencies such as the BCA. But according to Petsolt, the federal government is planning to enter into the fray.
"We have a contract with the FBI," he says. "But the electronic relay isn't in place, so [agencies] are still sending the cards manually." Petsolt adds that his company will be supplying only the scanners, and not the network.
While the FBI is setting up its database, Petsolt and DBI employees are continuing to chase corporate clients. The company is trying to convince credit card companies to put customers' prints on cards. So far, however, it's been a hard sell. "We need to overcome the mindset that fingerprints are for criminal purposes only," says Petsolt.