Before the FBI entered the digital age, its database was like a huge repository. In the 1920s, the federal office had only 25 employees tasked with classifying over 800,000 individual fingerprints. But since 1943, more than 20,000 people have done this work, sorting no less than 70 million fingerprints. What was the fingerprint cataloging method? Who was in charge of this special mission of the American government, and especially where did all the procedure take place?

Undercover like a factory

During the war, overstretched officials decided to move the institution to an army building in Washington that measured over 8,000 square meters. They called it the fingerprint factory. Like most FBI departments, anything that happened inside that factory had to stay inside the factory. The information held in this building was priceless and in the wrong hands it could have changed the world.

The Federal Bureau of Intelligence database (Washington’s Fingerprint Factory) from the 1940s (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Each person who worked in this place was handpicked and well trained to register about 200 fingerprint records and file about 1000 records per day. Most of the employees were women. By the 1970s, they had received vital intelligence and military secrets, managing to operate the so-called spy war machine at full capacity.

A row of filing cabinets from the Fingerprint Factory (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The women worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, processing up to 35,000 fingerprints a day. Thousands of FBI employees in the early 1940s were trained in the Henry Fingerprint Identification System, a method used in the United States and other English-speaking countries that manually cataloged fingerprints based on certain criteria physiological.

With the outbreak of World War II, the FBI’s priorities changed: they no longer investigated everyday crimes or misdemeanors, which took place on American soil, but dealt with the search and locating spies and obtaining information across the border. , pursuing and investigating potentially sabotaging immigrants. There were personal files with the fingerprints of members of the United States military, foreign agents working for the United States and those involved in the manufacture of weapons, summarizing: all those who were more or less connected to the American government .

The files contained both the individuals’ fingerprints, but also a short biography and extensive background check. In other words, if your name was in that database, they would know every place you’ve been from birth to now. By the late 1950s, America knew that this vital information was the best weapon and the future weapon to be used in modern warfare. Indeed, with the right information, you can have someone imprisoned or even executed.

Women filling out fingerprint cards (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This department had its greatest success during World War II when it examined 20,000 sabotage reports of which 2,282 were discovered to be genuine sabotage attempts. Proving once again how vital this data was, which is why, from time to time, random background checks were performed on agents, even if they were clear the first time.

Other than that, much of the information is classified. This shows why America really had the upper hand, it was because they understood very well that information would become the most valuable resource in the future.


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