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DNA Data Has New Standards

​DNA DATA can now be easily transferred across state and international borders, thanks to a new data transmission format standard developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The challenge was developing a means by which the information could be interpreted by the machines on either end, explains NIST biometrics standards coordinator Brad Wing, who helped develop the standard. Wing calls the DNA exchange a “major breakthrough.”

Wing explains the significance of the new development: If a person is arrested in one state, and that person is a suspect in a rape in another state—assuming that there is DNA from the incident—the data collected from the suspect’s DNA can now be transmitted to the state where the rape occurred. “You do not need to transmit the DNA itself. It’s just a series of numbers,” explains Wing.

The standard was first developed for fingerprints in the 1980s and has been adapted to be used with more data, including mug shots and iris capability. In addition to the DNA information, the newest revision of the standard includes more detailed friction ridge identification for fingerprints, palmprints and footprints, as well as other improvements.

Interpol’s Mark Branchflower says the standard “is vital for our work which involves sharing fingerprint data from 190 member countries.” The earlier NIST standard is now widely used. “Eighty-five percent of the work we receive is in NIST format; this allows us to search and file and make available to all member countries a fingerprint file of a fugitive in less than one hour,” he says. Interpol is examining adding the DNA standard as well.

The standard has already been adopted by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. Internationally, the government of Argentina is the first among other nations to adopt the standard, according to Wing.

Also included in the revision is an extended feature set, which allows for more standardized details of forensic findings, “so that if a fingerprint is marked up this year but it matches something in 2017 and the original forensic scientist is no longer around to be able to describe it, it’s going to be marked up in a standardized manner. It also allows…saving some things that are very detailed in the fingerprint, such as where [sweat] pores might be located.”

Another useful aspect of the extended feature set is the ability to put information in context, such as explaining that the data is from a photograph of a fingerprint taken from the windshield of a car.

“The military requested it, because they wanted to be able to take images of what’s called pocket litter. When they get a biometric sample from somebody over in say, Afghanistan, they want to be able to take images of what that person was carrying, what is associated with it; that’s the associated context,” says Wing.

In the next standard, Wing hopes to include standard sets for other types of forensic information, such as dental records. This additional data will further help to identify crime victims and disaster victims. NIST is working with the American Dental Association and other groups on that project.