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NIST: Both Fingerprints, Facial Recognition Needed to Protect U.S. Borders

Commerce Agency Recommends 'Dual Approach' as Best Option

A dual approach that employs both fingerprint and facial recognition technology is the best option for a biometric system that would make the nation's borders more secure, according to scientists at the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

After studying mature biometric technologies, NIST—in conjunction with the Departments of Justice and State—made the recommendation in a report recently transmitted to Congress. The study was mandated by the PATRIOT Act and the Enhanced Border Security Act.

NIST's Information Technology Laboratory (ITL) spearheaded evaluations to determine the ability of biometrics to enhance border security. The evaluations looked at two applications: the first is positively identifying visa applicants and the second is verifying that the holder of a visa is the person to whom the visa was issued.

Fingerprint performance was measured on an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) database of 1.2 million prints of 620,000 individuals. The Face Recognition Vendor Tests (FRVT) 2002 measured face recognition performance of 10 vendors on a Department of State database of 121,000 images of 37,000 individuals.

Based on the evaluations, as well as practical considerations, NIST recommends (1) the use of at least two fingerprints to positively identify visa applicants and (2) a dual system of face and fingerprints to verify the identities of visa holders at points of entry into the United States.

NIST managed the FRVT 2002 with sponsorship and support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); Departments of Defense, Justice and State; and other federal agencies. More information is available at, and results are expected to be posted in February 2003. The complete NIST appendix to the report to Congress is available at

In its evaluation of possible future border crossing systems, NIST noted that each fingerprint or facial image would require 10 kilobytes or less of computer memory storage. A card with 32-kilobyte storage capacity could store two fingerprints and a facial image, and many existing smart cards easily could do the job. NIST also recommends that any future visa system incorporate several existing information technology standards and specifications.

For example, biometric information could be scrambled using public key infrastructure (PKI) systems that incorporate the Digital Signature Standard. This information scrambling would make the system tamper resistant.

The information could be stored in cards that meet the Government Smart Card Interoperability Specification. Additionally, the data could be stored in a way that meets existing standards already used by law enforcement agencies to store fingerprint and mug shot information.

NIST scientists and engineers have a great deal of experience in using computers to match images automatically. NIST's ITL has worked extensively with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to speed up and automate fingerprint matching systems, and also has evaluated previous facial recognition systems.

As a non-regulatory agency of the US Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST develops and promotes measurement, standards and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade and improve the quality of life.

Released February 11, 2003, Updated January 12, 2023