Improving the Science of Fingerprinting: A Literature Review

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Fingerprints are one of the most commonly employed tools that we have in investigating crime. This powerful forensics methodology has contributed to the solving of countless criminal cases and has been used as convicting evidence in courts of law. However, as this literature review shows, even the use of fingerprints is in a state of evolution as we gain ever greater and more accurate tools in the struggle to investigate and solve crimes.

At the outset of the discussion, the text by Neumann (2012) helps to dismantle the notion that fingerprints are infallible as a way of drawing identity. According to the research provided by Neumann, fingerprints achieve a certain statistical probability that makes identity matches likely but not certain beyond a doubt. This finding helps to underscore the critical imperative of continuing forensics research, such that we may come in greater proximity of certainty.

The text by Thompson et al. (2013) also reinforces the importance of continuing our research on the use of fingerprinting, particularly because it is not a perfect method of detection. According to Thompson et al., matching of fingerprints with existing records is something of an inexact science. The article finds that “Experts showed a conservative response bias, tending to err on the side of caution by making more errors of the sort that could allow a guilty person to escape detection than errors of the sort that could falsely incriminate an innocent person.” (p. 1)

In light of such findings, research presented by Hildebrandt et al. (2013) becomes of particular value. According to Hildebrandt et al., the strategy of using ‘malicious traces’ to print varying projections of a single fingerprint can help to substantially improve the statistical probability of achieving a match. According to their research “the technique of printing fingerprints using artificial sweat allows to create different versions of the same fingerprint, similar to the residue from a finger, which is almost never 100% identical to another latent fingerprint.” (p. 1)

This helps to justify the ongoing efforts of innovators in the field of forensics to improve matching strategies for fingerprinting. Indeed, the text by Merkel et al. (2012) describes the push to combine traditional fingerprinting techniques with those mediated by emergent technology. In their research, Merkel et al. describe the traditional method and help to demonstrate why the addition of digital technology to this equation is so promising. According to their report, “fingerprints are captured by powdering and sticky tape lifting, ninhydrine bathing or cyanoacrylate fuming and subsequent photographing. Images of the evidence are then further processed by forensic experts. With the upcoming use of new multimedia systems for the digital capturing and processing of crime scene traces in forensics, higher resolutions can be achieved, leading to a much better quality of forensic images.” (p. 1)

This is further highlighted in the scholarly research by Swarminathan et al. (2008), which provides some detail into the exciting new possibilities in the area of digital imaging. Here, the research asserts that it may soon be possible with the technology available today to provide real and useable fingerprinting by way of imaging at remote crime scenes. According to the researchers, “many processing operations, both inside and outside acquisition devices, leave distinct intrinsic traces on digital images, and these intrinsic fingerprints can be identified and employed to verify the integrity of digital data. The intrinsic fingerprints of the various in-camera processing operations can be estimated through a detailed imaging model and its component analysis.” (Swarminathan et al., p. 1)

This information has the potential to be particularly useful to forensics experts working in collaboration across great distances or even in surveillance efforts where remote access to suspected crime scenes is required. This denotes that the integration of existing forensic strategies for matching fingerprints and evolving digital technologies may help to improve our ability not only to solve individual crimes but to compile yet more complete crime databases.

Another dimension of the discussion on fingerprinting must inevitably include acknowledgement of those strategies which are poised to supplement its use. Just as digital imaging is opening new doors for fingerprinting, so to is digital imaging of the suspect’s face. As the text by Hess (2010) indicates, facial recognition can provide crucial support in identifying individuals where other biometric indicators are lacking. As Hess reports, “while fingerprints assure higher rates of accuracy than face recognition can, facial recognition provides benefits when fingerprint data does not exist, is not easily shared between agencies, or when multiple independent verification methods are desired.” (Hess, p. 1)

Another innovative strategy actually uses fingerprints to draw DNA evidence. The research by Norlin et al. (2013) tested 9 different methods of visualization and abstraction of DNA evidence from fingerprints created under laboratory controlled conditions. According to the research, “several of the evaluated visualization techniques (e.g., Wet Powder and black fingerprint powder) do not damage DNA and allow DNA analysis to a large extent.” (p. 189)

This and the rest of the literature consulted for this review helps to demonstrate that the field of research on fingerprints remains very much in a state of continuing evolution.

Works Cited:

Hess, E. (2010). Facial Recognition: A Valuable Tool for Law Enforcement. Forensic Magazine.

Hildebrandt, M.; Kiltzm, S. & Dittmann, J. (2013). Printed fingerprints at crime scenes: a faster detection of malicious traces using scans of confocal microscopes. Media Watermarking, Security, and Forensics, 8665.

Merkel, R.; Breuhan, A.; Hildebrandt, M.; Vielhauer, C. & Brautigam, A. (2012). Environmental impact to multimedia systems on the example of fingerprint aging behavior at crime scenes. Media Watermarking, Security, and Forensics, 8436.

Neumann, C. (2012). Fingerprints at the crime-scene: Statistically certain, or probable? Significance, 9(1), 21-25.

Norlin, S.; Nilsson, M.; Heden, P. & Allen, M. (2013).

Evaluation of the Impact of Different Visualization Techniques on DNA in Fingerprints. journal of Forensic Identification, 63(2).

Swarminathan, A.; Wu, M. & Liu, K.J.R. (2008). Digital image forensics via intrinsic fingerprints. Information Forensics and Security, 3(1).

Thompson, M.B.; Tangen, J.M. & McCarthy, D.J. (2013). Human Matching Performance of Genuine Crime Scene Latent Fingerprints. Law and Human Behavior.