Fingerprints – A Touchy Subject

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Is it true that just as each snowflake is different, every leaf is singular, and no one looks exactly like Steve Buscemi, every fingerprint is unique? If they’re used to solve crimes, aren’t they a completely dependable way to base a background check on a job candidate?

And today, not only crimes but smartphones, laptops and many other of our latest and most advanced devices can be secured with a fingerprint, right? Biometric technology, as it’s called, seems unbeatable since fingerprints can’t be duplicated. While you may be able to alter your visage with Photoshop and modify your voice with Audacity, fingerprints can’t be altered. We all know that. And as such, fingerprints can be relied upon as an accurate source for criminal history, correct?

In fact, the facts prove otherwise.

Yes, just as we were told as kids, fingerprints are actually unique (the jury is still out on other stuff we were taught, including the veracity of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, however). The patterns of ridges on our finger pads are unique: no two individuals—even identical twins—have fingerprints that are exactly alike. That’s why governments around the world have used fingerprints for more than 100 years to provide accurate identification of criminals.

This information is found in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which reveals that while our fingerprints do alter as we age, the changes are extremely slight and are not noticed by today’s machines that compare fingerprints.

So, fingerprints can be depended upon to positively identify a person. The problem, however, is not with the prints themselves but how they are used in efforts to reveal identity and a person’s background.

A criminologist in Irvine, CA named Simon Cole demonstrated that as many as a thousand incorrect fingerprints matches could be made each year just in the United States. In analyzing all publicly known mistaken fingerprint matches dating back to 1920, Cole suggests that there may be far more than the 22 exposed incidents he found, including eight since 1999, pointing out that proficiency tests conducted since 1983 show an aggregate error rate of 0.8 percent. That’s not a lot but if you consider the huge number of cases U.S. crime laboratories processed just in 2002, there may have been 1,900 mistaken fingerprint matches. And that’s just for that one year.

You may remember the case of Brandon Mayfield, an American attorney. After the 2004 Madrid train bombings, fingerprints on a bag containing detonating devices were found by Spanish authorities who shared them with the FBI through Interpol. The FBI found 20 possible matches for one of the fingerprints, including one for Mr. Mayfield whose prints had been recorded years earlier when he joined the military.

Based on these fingerprint matches, the FBI arrested Mayfield and held him for over two weeks. When the FBI finally sent Mayfield’s fingerprints to the Spanish authorities, the Spanish contested the matching of the fingerprints to the ones associated with the bombing. Besides, the Spanish authorities informed the FBI, they had other suspects in the case. The FBI disregarded the information from the Spanish authorities, and proceeded to spy on Mayfield and his family. According to Department of Justice documents, the FBI used National Security Letters in order to wiretap his phones, bug his hose, and search his house several times.

In the end, Mayfield was not charged, and an FBI internal review acknowledged serious errors in their investigation. Lawsuits resulted in a formal apology from the U.S. government and a $2 million settlement in favor of Mayfield.

Obviously the methodology was flawed. According to Fingerprint Studies – The Recent Challenges and Advancements: A Literary View, “In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was designed, assembled, and reviewed by the International Association for Identification (IAI). The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latent. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latent. Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from ‘shock to disbelief,’ and added: ‘errors of this magnitude within a discipline singularly admired and respected for its touted absolute certainty as an identification process have produced chilling and mind-numbing realities.

So while fingerprints themselves may indeed be unique, the use of those prints alone to accurately identify a person is not perfect.

Neither is the FBI’s information repository called Next Generation Identification (NGI), comprising fingerprints and biometric data (face recognition capabilities). This database is incomplete, not routinely updated, dependent upon submissions from the 50 states (who are under no mandate to keep it current) and rife with potential inaccuracies.

This is the conclusion of “Wanted: Accurate FBI Background Checks for Employment,” which stated: In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released approximately 17 million background checks for employment purposes, a sixfold increase from the decade before. These reports are notoriously inaccurate: An estimated 600,000 job seekers received an inaccurate FBI check in 2012. Notably, FBI background checks frequently fail to provide the outcome of cases. The states have a role in causing this problem, as they often fail to provide case outcomes to the FBI, despite being required by law to do so within 120 days. Given that many cases do not result in convictions or are resolved on lesser charges, having a criminal record that has not been updated to reflect the outcome of charges can be highly prejudicial.”

So while fingerprints are unique for every individual, it may be prudent to avoid sole reliance on fingerprint based background checks, and instead supplement a review of an individual’s criminal history using local “boots on the ground” criminal searches through a third-party background check company that screens prospective employees using comprehensive and diverse criteria to verify a person’s identity and their credentials.

Free Checklist for Conducting Thorough and Lawful Background Checks
Free Checklist for Conducting Lawful and Thorough Background Checks
Free Checklist for Conducting Thorough and Lawful Background Checks

Download this checklist for the recent developments that have rejuvenated concerns about the defensibility of criminal background check programs.

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Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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