The Mega-Databases that Track Your Life

Harold Finch and John Reese track potential crime victims using secret databases and a ubiquitous surveillance infrastructure in the new series Person of Interest. Their world is filled with street corner cameras and espionage — but in the real world, cameras and databases are tracking your every move just as carefully, to the point where you couldn't disappear if you wanted to.

Let's take a look at the techniques used by the United States and United Kingdom to correlate crimes with their perpetrators... along with the growth of these databases, and their impact on personal privacy.

The Mega-Databases that Track Your Life


Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System
The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) is maintained and funded by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Scanned sets of ten fingerprints from 70 million criminals and 30 million civilians are in the database; a database that includes close to one in four U.S. citizens. In addition to digital fingerprint data, the IAFIS also includes data on significant anatomical features like tattoos and scars.

Civilians enter the database through a variety of methods. Some Federal and State jobs require employees to be in the system, while some background checks and firearms purchases automatically earn you a place in the database.

The IAFIS system is called upon 60 million times a year, with the average criminal cross reference taking 27 minutes, while a civilian reference takes a little over an hour. Not instantaneous like in movies and television, but not too bad either.

Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)
Also maintained and funded by the FBI, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) compares 13 short tandem repeats OF DNA sampled from victims and individuals in the database. The probability of one person sharing a stretch of DNA with another individual is reasonable (between 5 to 20% on average), but when 13 stretches of DNA are compared simultaneously, the probability of a false cross reference drops to a nearly infinitesimal percentage.

CODIS started as a way to collect data on convicted sex offenders, but in time, the system expanded to include individuals convicted of murder and higher level felonies, with some states (including California) acquiring data in a considerably more liberal manner.

The CODIS database currently houses close to 250,000 forensic samples and DNA samples from 7 million offenders.

The Mega-Databases that Track Your LifeS


Taking DNA samples when you are arrested
Controversy surrounding the CODIS database arose when Proposition 69 passed in California, which allowed the state to take a DNA samples of any person arrested for a felony and some misdemeanor offenses, beginning in 2009.

The acquisition of DNA data without conviction is a rather controversial issue, but, compared to the United Kingdom, the United States collection efforts are quite tame.

Much more aggressive DNA testing in the UK
The United Kingdom holds DNA samples on over 5% of its population. When a citizen is arrested for almost any offense a DNA sample is retained for later use. The types of arrests allowing for DNA acquisition include low level offenses like illegal protesting, drunk and disorderly conduct, and begging.

The United Kingdom touts the availability of DNA samples as a tool just as likely to free an individual as condemn them, using the Big Brother-esque phrase "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" when describing the policy.

Due to the UK's wide sampling method, the data for over 24,000 children under the age of ten is recorded by the government. The UK database also comes under fire as the data and samples are housed by private, for-profit entities, with some questioning the intentions of these companies and the security of their genetic information.

These databases will continue to grow
While these DNA and fingerprinting technologies are considerably more mundane than the world of constant video surveillance and social security number spouting computers seen in Person of Interest, the data at hand is much more reliable.

All three databases above are poised to grow over time — likely to the extent where every individual in the United Kingdom and United States is sampled in one or more systems.

Images courtesy of CBS, the State of Nebraska, and the FBI Codis Database. Sources linked within the article.