It's Evident


Advancements in fingerprint technology
Angela Lack, Esq.


Fingerprints have been used as a biometric measure for more than a century and is one of the most well known and highly publicized techniques used to identify perpetrators of crime.1 The techniques of fingerprint identification have advanced from ink pads and paper to electronic recognition. Popular crime scene television shows commonly show advance fingerprinting techniques, such as rehydrating the skin of a burned corpse to provide a fingerprint, or using a blue compound to take the fingerprint of a death soldier in the field to later identify. Most techniques have become widely accepted and reliable forms of biometrics, especially with advancements in computer technology and chemical reagents.

Fingerprints: A brief history

In 1892, Juan Vucetich made the first criminal identification using fingerprints when he matched the fingerprint of a female who murdered her two children. This mother left a bloody fingerprint on a door post and cut her own throat to try to place blame on an unknown assailant. Additionally, Vucetich experimented with a classification system for fingerprints by using fingerprint samples that he took from each man he arrested. Vuctich’s However, his system was based on the earlier research published that same year in Sir Francis Galton’s book “Finger Prints.” Not surprisingly, Galton’s work can be traced to earlier fingerprint research done in the 1850’s by William Herschel, whose work can be traced even further back to the late 1600’s to Marcello Malpighi. Malpighi had studied the patterns on the tips of the fingers and is referred as the first histologist.2

The techniques and uses of fingerprint technology have progressed since their first uses. What once was the sole domain of law enforcement, fingerprint technology has influenced other sectors of society. put its impression on many other segments. In the business world, fingerprints are one of the high tech security measures, which provide access to secured areas by using them as recognition of authorized personnel. In healthcare, Additionally, hospitals use fingerprints to identify newborns. The Government agencies use inkless fingerprints to manage immigration, visitor entry into the U.S., and homeland security through databases such as the Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which store and search for fingerprint matches.

Fingerprints have been used to identify and convict criminals prior to the use of DNA; however, the reliability is becoming questionable, even though in some instances fingerprints can assist in identifying criminals the identification especially when even if DNA is present. For example, fingerprints can be used to better identify identical twins because they have the same DNA structure but do not share the same friction ridge structure. Friction ridges are the epidermal folds on the finger that occur over every pore on the skin. Friction ridges are what makes a fingerprints unique and non-repeatable.3 Friction ridges are the epidermal folds on the finger that occur over every pore on the skin.4 Friction ridges are what makes a fingerprint unique and non-repeatable.5

Today fingerprints are used in high tech biometric security applications and handheld devices to quickly identify the dead in cases of mass fatalities. Airports and amusement parks have replaced standard lock and key lockers with keyless thumbprint lockers. The typical time clock is being replaced with systems that track time with a simple press of the thumb. Fingerprints are being used for keyless entries for homes and automobiles.

In the legal setting, especially in crime scene analysis, fingerprint technology advancements have been greeted with open arms. Every technological improvement yields an even better chance of a fingerprint match and greater legal validity. Before Daubert, lawyers often tried to confuse the public and juries on the validity of fingerprints arguing that they do not establish scientific proof. If the tenants of sound science which states “scientific proof” means every instance of something must be examined is followed, common sense tells us that it is impossible to examine every fingerprint in the world. Indeed, the concept of biological uniqueness has been developed and validated by science and the Courts have upheld this validity in such cases as Daubert. Over the past hundred years of fingerprint examination by examiners and more recently with the aid of computer databases such as IAFIS, no two fingerprints have ever been deemed completely identical.

The Importance of IAFIS

The IAFIS is the largest biometric database in the world.67 IAFIS, a national fingerprint and criminal history database.7 is an automated fingerprint search database which provides latent searching capability, electronic image storage, and electronic exchange of fingerprints, and depends on fast response time within the law enforcement community.8 It contains the fingerprints and corresponding criminal history information for more than 55 million subjects.9 It searches and responds 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and verifies fingerprints within a hours.10 If automatic search techniques were not used fingerprint verification could take law enforcement three months or more.11 With IAFIS fingerprints in a criminal case are verified within a few hours.12

The CSI Effect on Fingerprint Evidence

According to a NIJ article in 2006, a one week Nielson television rating resulted in the following statistics.13
• 30 million people watched CSI on one night.
• 70 million watched at least one of the three CSI shows.
• 40 million watched two other forensic dramas such as Without a Trace and Cold Case.14

Those ratings indicated that five of the top 10 television programs that week were about scientific evidence in criminal cases.15 Together, they amassed more than 100 million viewers.16 Each of these viewers comprise "the public" and are called to jury duty periodically. They not only want to see scientific techniques used in the courtroom, they expect it and are disappointed when the evidence is not the same as shown on television.

Advancement in Fingerprints or Just More of the CSI Effect

In August, DESI was introduced. DESI uses mass spectrography, a very popular technique for finding trace evidence used on popular television shows like CSI.17 DESI uses mass spectrography, a very popular technique for finding trace evidence used on popular television shows like CSI.17 DESI works without a vacuum and can be used in handheld devices in the field. This technique can analyze chemicals left on an object that has been touched and contains fingerprints. It is capable of detecting trace amounts of high explosives, cocaine or marijuana, and provides assistance in the fight against crime or terrorism.20 The ability to find trace amounts of high explosives after a suspect puts down his soda bottle is very promising21 and may lead to improved identification methods for forensics and law enforcement.22

DESI researchers responsible for DESI believe that this technique may be used in a medical setting to find chemical markers for disease, which otherwise would not show up in blood or urine tests. Misuse of the DESI technique has the potential to pose threats to privacy.23


A potential caveat to technological advances developed for and implemented by the scientific community, law enforcement, government, and private entities, is that privacy can become more and more limited. Everywhere a person goes trace evidence, fingerprints, and even DNA are left behind. It is important to strike a balance between progress and protection of individual rights.


1 NCST Subcommittee on Biometrics, “Fingerprint Recognition,” National Science and Technology Council Online Publication, last updated August 7, 2006 (Last Accessed October 3, 2008).
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3 Ashbaugh, David R. “Ridges and Furrows,” (Last accessed on October 3, 2008).
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6 “Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System,” (Last accessed on October 3, 2008).
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13 Shelton, Donald. “The 'CSI Effect': Does It Really Exist?,” NIJ Journal 259, March 2008, (Last Accessed on October 3, 2008).
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17 Castelvecchi, Davide. “Fingerprints Go High-Tech,” 174 Science News 5, August 30, 2008, (Last accessed on October 3, 2008).
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