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Mobile Biometric Devices: What the Future Holds

By Patricia Wolfhope, Biometrics Transition Program Manager, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.

obile biometric devices are providing benefits to law enforcement and homeland security field agents who use biometric collection to identify people during field operations in near real time. The use of mobile biometrics to quickly determine the identity of a person can and does save officers’ lives. Of the 584 officers feloniously killed between 2000 and 2009, 82 percent of the persons involved in their deaths had at least one prior criminal arrest or a current warrant out for arrest.1 If a person is identified through mobile biometrics and is known to have a record, an officer may choose a different tactic, technique, or procedure to preclude a physical altercation. Some mobile biometric devices also allow for full bookings in the field and thereby save time and keep officers where they are needed most: in the field.

A corrections officer collects fingerprints
using a mobile biometric device at a mock
prison riot in May 2011 at the
decommissioned West Virginia Penitentiary.

Mobile biometric devices are handheld technologies capable of obtaining various biometric modalities (for example, fingerprint, face, and iris) in order to identify or enroll a person of interest in a database. Some mobile devices also are capable of obtaining latent fingerprints from crime scenes and of utilizing various card-reading technologies. These devices can transmit biometric data to databases via personal area networks such as Bluetooth, local area networks such as Wi-Fi, wide area networks such as cellular networks, and mobile satellite communication systems.

As a scientist and engineer, I treasure the time I have spent with law enforcement officers in an effort to better understand their needs and experience their operations firsthand. These experiences with officers will enable the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to improve the next generation of technologies that will make a difference. In 2008, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) brought together operational agents from virtually all the federal agencies, along with state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, to categorize and prioritize mobile biometric requirements. With a growing number of agencies acquiring mobile biometric devices, it is increasingly important that the DHS S&T remains at the forefront of research and development while maintaining an understanding of the operational environments that inform the evolving technology requirements of the first-responder communities.

The DHS now has in place a mobile biometrics program that is addressing device development, pilot testing, and product certification.

The DHS is currently developing a compact, lightweight, four-finger slap fingerprint sensor that will allow the easy and efficient acquisition of 10 prints (4 fingers from the right hand, 4 fingers from the left hand, and both thumbs) in the field. Current systems allow for only single or dual finger acquisition. Two contracts were awarded to companies in June 2010 and in July 2010. These efforts are 21- and 18-month developmental efforts, respectively, and the companies are well on their way to producing their first prototypes. The next DHS initiative will award contracts to integrate multimodal biometric capabilities (face, fingerprint, iris, and card readers) into a single device that meets all of the mobile biometric device best practices and standards.2

Additionally, DHS is pilot-testing mobile biometric devices through a national research and development laboratory with federal, state, local, and tribal agencies within the United States. This ongoing project began in September 2010. Through these pilot tests with various agencies, many valuable lessons have been learned, but one lesson stands out: In order for an agency to use mobile biometrics, the agency’s automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) must be configured to accept biometric data from mobile devices. Agencies that do not yet have an AFIS capability to connect with mobile devices—but that wish to expand to one that can—must design with the flexibility to accept biometric data from any mobile biometric device with standard outputs. Remaining vendor-agnostic will allow for easier and more effective acquisitions in the future.

Another project under the DHS S&T mobile biometrics program is product certification. Many vendors are producing mobile biometric devices—some that adhere to standards and best practices and others that do not. The DHS recognizes the need to create a list of devices that meet National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommendations and published standards so that agencies can make more educated acquisition decisions.

Creating and maintaining a qualified product list involves multiple facets:

  • Defining a testing framework
  • Testing devices by third-party accredited laboratories
  • Certifying devices through a multiagency independent body using third-party test results

The DHS has contracted with a science, technology, and strategy organization to design—with guidance from federal, state, and local operational users—the testing framework that will act as a testing road map for third-party laboratories that are accredited under the NIST National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program.

DHS mobile biometric framework “system of systems”

This figure shows an overall depiction of the “system of systems” for the testing framework that will be available late this year.

Fingerprints remain the dominant modality for mobile biometrics, with facial recognition in the field being used in normal operations by various agencies. While iris enrollment is part of routine booking procedures for some agencies, it is not yet used as a field identifier, but rather as a verifier for access control and release.

While the current mobile biometric devices have the capability to acquire finger, face, and iris images in the field, research and development into the next generation of these technologies holds the promise of providing expanded applications that can help reduce the costs of biometric field “transactions” and increase accuracy and match rates.

Multiple biometric databases exist at the federal, state, and local levels. The main federal databases are the DHS Automated Biometrics Identification System (IDENT); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System; and the Department of Defense Automated Biometric Identification System. The FBI Next Generation Identification project will facilitate queries on faces and irises as well as on fingerprints and palm prints. As agency feedback is gathered and analyzed on how current state-of-the-art devices are performing in enrollment and field identification, the DHS S&T pilot projects are key to understanding what future mobile device capabilities will fit law enforcement and homeland security operations.

The value of improved mobile biometric devices is not limited to the identification of subjects in the field; it also has great potential to provide real-time information from crime and incident scenes. Camera resolution in a number of mobile biometric devices is sufficient to capture latent prints and send them back to examiners, saving time in the transportation of physical latent prints, especially from remote areas. With adequate access to relevant databases such as DHS IDENT, it is not hard to imagine such a capability generating information necessary for effective transnational criminal and antiterrorist operations. The potential application for the cooperative sharing of latent fingerprints was recently demonstrated when a latent print, left at the scene of a multiple homicide, matched a record on file with the DHS IDENT database.

If your agency would like to learn more about the DHS mobile biometrics program or participate in the pilot efforts, email the author at For more information on mobile identification device best practices and recommendations, visit ■

Patricia Wolfhope is the Biometrics Transition Program Manager at the Science and Technology Directorate for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.


1 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Systems, Uniform Crime Report, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA], 2009, table 46, (accessed July 20, 2011).
2 For more information on mobile identification device best practices and recommendations, see Shahram Orandi and R. Michael McCabe, Mobile ID Device Best Practice Recommendation, Version 1.0, NIST Special Publication 500-280 (National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce, July 2009), (accessed July 14, 2011).

Please cite as:

Patricia Wolfhope, "Mobile Biometric Devices: What the Future Holds," The Police Chief 78 (September 2011): 38–40.

Click to view the digital edition.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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