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efore the FBI advanced to the digital era, its database looked like a huge repository. In the 1920s, the federal office had only 25 employees dealing with the classification of more than 800,000 individual fingerprints. But since 1943, there have been more than 20,000 people doing this work, sorting no less than 70 million fingerprints. What was the method for cataloging fingerprints? Who was in charge of this special mission of the American government, and especially where the whole procedure took place?

Undercover as a Factory

During the war, being overwhelmed, officials decided to move the institution to an army building in Washington that measured more than 8,000 square meters. They called it the Fingerprint Factory. Like most FBI departments, everything that was happening inside this factory had to stay inside the factory. The information held within this building was invaluable, and in the hands of the wrong people, it could have changed the world.

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

Every person that worked in this place was handpicked and well-trained to register around 200 fingerprint records and file around 1000 records a day. Most of the employees were women. By the 1970s, they had received vital intelligence and military secrets, managing to operate the so-called espionage 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 under the Henry Fingerprint Identification System, a method used in the United States and other English-speaking countries that manually cataloged fingerprints based on certain physiological criteria.

With the outbreak of World War II, the FBI’s priorities changed: they no longer investigated everyday crimes or offenses, which took place on American soil, but dealt with tracking and tracing spies, and obtaining information from across the border. , pursuing and investigating potentially sabotaging immigrants. There were personal files with fingerprints of members of the US 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 with the US government.

The files contained both the fingerprints of the individuals, but also a short biography and a thorough verification of the past. In other words, if your name was in this database they would know every place you have been since you have been born until the present moment. By the late 1950s, America knew that such vital information is the best weapon and the future weapon to be used in modern wars. This is because with the right piece of information you can get a person imprisoned or even executed.

Women filling fingerprint records (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This department had its highest success during the Second World War when they looked into 20,000 reports of sabotage from which 2,282 they discovered as being actual attempts of sabotage. Proving once again how vital such data was, that is why from time to time, random background checks were done on agents even if they came clean the first time.


Apart from that, much of the information is classified. This goes to show why America really had an upper hand, it is because they understood very well that information will become the most valuable resource in the future.

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