The Project: Digitizing millions of fingerprint cards and connecting law-enforcement agencies to a huge database of fingerprints.

The Payoff: It can scan its 46 million sets of prints in minutes, a process that used to take six months by hand.

It was midnight on July 22, 1957, when two El Segundo (Calif.) police officers were shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. Across the country and 46 years later, police in Columbia, S.C., arrested Gerald Mason, a mild-mannered retiree. Mason pleaded guilty to the two murders and was sentenced to two life terms in prison.

It's not often that police can close an ice-cold case, but it's happening more these days, thanks to the FBI's fingerprint-identification technology. The agency has digitized millions of inked fingerprint cards that had been accumulating in metal filing cabinets. Now, when local cops need to match a print, the FBI can run it through an imaging system that scans 46 million sets of prints in minutes. The FBI guarantees local police departments a maximum response time of two hours, says Michael Kirkpatrick, assistant director of criminal justice information services at the FBI.

The computer system works so well that the FBI is turning it into a moneymaker. It's conducting employee background checks for the securities industry, local school districts, and other businesses. When the agency's fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, that service brought in $152 million. Not bad for a not-for-profit.

By Lorraine Woellert

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