This page considers biometric databases or collections.
It covers -
- scope and scale of fingerprint, DNA and other biometric
government data collection and identification registers
are discussed in more
detail elsewhere on this site.
Most biometric schemes involve reference databases - collections
of 'legitimate' identifiers (in image or other formats)
for authentication matching or for screening. Routinisation
of data collection means that although some databases
are small, for example restricted to people accessing
a particular building, others have grown to cover much
of the population.
The Australian AFIS database, for example, contains around
2.6 million fingerprint
records from individual State and Territory Police Agencies,
including what are claimed to be records from all people
arrested since 1941 and records from a range of official
probity checks (eg police applicants for appointment as
a police officer).
In the US the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Integrated
Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), promoted
as the world's the largest biometric database, holds prints
of over 47 million subjects in a Criminal Master File
(with prints and associated criminal history data being
"submitted voluntarily by state, local, and federal
law enforcement agencies", several of which contribute
from discrete databases). Prints are acquired as a result
of an arrest at the city, county, state or federal level;
they are not expunged if prosecution does not proceed
or the individual is pronounced not guilty.
IAFIS also features 'civil' prints, acquired as part of
background checks for "employment, licensing, and
other non-criminal justice purposes where authorized by
federal and state law and in compliance with appropriate
regulations". That checking encompasses everything
from the bullet-catchers at the Whitehouse to local dog
catchers and health inspectors.
Large-scale DNA databases are more recent - the first
national DNA criminal database for example was established
in the UK in 1995, almost one hundred years after initial
fingerprint databases - but have grown rapidly.
As at 2002 the UK national DNA database held over 1.5
million DNA profiles collected from suspects and convicted
criminals. That had grown to over 3.1 million profiles
by 2006, including 37% of black UK men, 13% of Asian men
and 9% of white men according to advocacy group GeneWatch.
Most profiles came from people who have been charged and
convicted of crimes, but as of 2005 UK police have the
power to take DNA from anyone arrested on suspicion of
a recordable offence (ie would involve a custodial sentence),
so the current figure of profiles from 113,000 people
who had been arrested but not charged will presumably
By 2006 the UK government offered indicative figures about
national DNA registration by police agencies -
Zealand's national DNA databank, launched in 1996, held
a modest 16,000 profiles as at 2003 but was growing at
around 25% pa. The FBI Combined DNA Index System (CODIS),
dating from 1998, held a mere 600,000 convicted offender
profiles but is forms part of that organisation's National
DNA Index System enabling city, county, state and federal
law enforcement agencies to compare DNA profiles electronically.
Concerns about a single, integrated database are misplaced
and the exchange of information between dabases that use
different biometrics is inhibited by the lack of standardisation
discussed earlier in this note.
What we are seeing instead is the transmission of information
between 'sister' databases (eg one fingerprint collection
to another) - an extension of past practice in faxing
or even using the post to disseminate details - and use
of electronic gateways.
The so-called Schengen III agreement in Europe in mid-2005
thus provides that officials will for the pursuit of criminal
offences have access (via 'contact points') to fingerprint
and DNA databases maintained signatory countries, with
access to fingerprint data also permitted for prevention
of criminal offences. A suspect's identity will typically
only be revealed once a formal legal request has been
made, following awareness that a match has been made.
Civil liberties advocates have perceptively commented
that although large-scale automated data mining across
different databases (especially across those in several
jurisdictions) may be impeded by technical constraints
and administrative or legal protocols, in practice it
is quite easy for 'one-off' searching to be done ... simply
supply details to each human contact point in a government
There are also concerns about 'leakage' and 'precautionary
data collection', with for example concerns about trans-border
exchange of passport information (or data about suspected
terrorists, paedophiles and other offenders) with that
information percolating into other systems in a way that
is outside frameworks for accountability and correction.
next page (attitudes)