Tattoo-ID: Matching Tattoos to Identify Individuals

Tattoo-ID: Matching Tattoos to Identify Individuals

A Michigan State University researcher has developed an automatic image retrieval system, enabling law enforcement agencies to match scars, marks and tattoos to identify suspects and victims.

"Identity is usually established using passports, licenses, or personal identification numbers, but there is a very real concern that these types of credentials for identity determination are neither sufficiently reliable nor secure," said Anil Jain, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State University.

"There is a need to recognize people based on physical characteristics like fingerprints, iris, or face. This is the field of biometric recognition where we have been working for the past 15 years," said Jain.

Biometrics refers to the automatic identification of an individual based on that individual's anatomical or behavioral characteristics. Jain is taking biometric recognition to the next step by adding scar, mark, and tattoo recognition capability to the identification tools available to law enforcement, government, and military agencies.

Called "Tattoo-ID," Jain's software program accepts databases provided by law enforcement agencies that contain images of scars, marks and tattoos. Each tattoo image in the database is linked to the criminal history records of all the suspects and convicts who have tattoos. If users, like police officers, provide a tattoo image query, the system automatically retrieves the most similar tattoo images from the database along with the linked criminal history records.

"About 20 percent of the population has at least one tattoo, and this percentage is even higher among delinquents," said Jain. "In fact, many gangs have a unique membership tattoo. With the rising popularity of tattoos, it makes sense to put these markers to good use," pointed out Jain.

Jain said that if an officer arrests a person who does not have any identifying documents and uses an alias, but has a tattoo, the system will help law enforcement agencies to identify and apprehend criminal suspects.

"Presently, the only way to identify someone from his or her tattoo is to sift through a large tattoo database and try to visually match tattoos based on some keywords. The process is time-consuming and often inaccurate," said Jain.

While a scar, mark or tattoo cannot uniquely identify a person, it can help the authorities narrow down the list of potential identities; it can indicate membership in a gang, social and religious group, or military unit.

It is also capable of identifying victims, including those of mass disasters. "Many of the Indian Ocean tsunami victims in 2004 were identified by tattoos that indicated what group or village they came from," said Jain.

"A body can decompose quickly, particularly in adverse climate conditions, making it difficult to perform face or fingerprint identification," said Jain. "Because tattoo pigments are deeply embedded in the skin, even severe skin burns often do not destroy tattoos."

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