Fingerprinting study sets off alarm bells

Business School professor detects problem in federal program to finger terrorists


Last autumn, Lawrence Wein detected a serious problem in the federal government's US-VISIT program, designed to capture terrorists entering American airports by checking their fingerprints.

Wein, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Management Science, presented his findings to the White House and the Department of Homeland Security and testified before two subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Homeland Security. His work sounded alarm bells among politicians and government officials and prompted the government to revisit the design and implementation of the US-VISIT program.

As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, most foreign citizens entering the United States have been required to have their fingerprints checked against those of known terrorists. Under the US-VISIT program now in effect, U.S. Customs officials at airports lay each foreign visitor's two index fingers down on a special pad and then wait while the computer compares the images against the fingerprints stored in the system of several million known criminals and suspected terrorists. When the computer detects a match, a person is quietly sequestered for further investigation. While the system is 96 percent accurate overall, Wein has found that its performance degrades when fingerprint quality is not good.

Using mathematical models, Wein, along with Manas Baveja, a doctoral student at the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering and a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, has specifically determined that when image quality is poor, accuracy drops to 53 percent. "About 5 percent of the general public and 10 percent of those on the watch list have bad quality fingerprints due either to genetics or hard labor," Wein says. It's those small percentages that can evade the system—with potentially huge consequences. "We assume that terrorist organizations will eventually defeat the US-VISIT program by employing a majority of people whose fingerprint quality is either naturally bad or deliberately made so," he says.

Wein and Baveja developed various mathematical models that calculated how the system could be tweaked to improve accuracy while not increasing either visitor waiting times at airports or the need for more customs staffing. "We found that instead of scanning two index fingers, scanning eight to 10 fingers will result in a 95 percent detection probability, even when fingerprint quality is bad," Wein says.

In the meantime, Wein has proposed a shorter-term solution that will require only a minor software modification. "By loosening the detection thresholds on poor images you can catch more of these people," he says. "You make up for the additional secondary inspection time this takes by slightly raising detection thresholds on good images." Such an adjustment should raise the likelihood of catching suspects with the worst quality images from 53 to 73 percent.

A professor at the Graduate School of Business, Wein details his research in an article titled "Using Fingerprint Image Quality to Improve the Identification Performance of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program," co-authored with Manas Baveja. The paper appears in the May 9-13 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (

Wein's paper is one of the first produced outside of the U.S. government to be concerned with this important issue. "There's no excuse for a $10 billion program to settle for performance levels below 95 percent in all cases, and it's my hope that the government will move quickly on this," he says. While changing from a two-finger to an eight- or 10-finger system will necessitate expensive new hardware and major disruptions, Wein says the Department of Homeland Security realizes there is a serious vulnerability in its system and is currently assessing the best way to fix it. Earlier, Wein used mathematical modeling to determine that swift medical treatment, not prevention, is the most effective form of protection against anthrax attacks. That research also attracted the attention of government security agencies and led to a program whereby the U.S. Postal Service will deliver antibiotics in the Washington, D.C., area in the event of a large anthrax attack.

Marguerite Rigoglioso is a freelance writer.