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Fingerprint analysis is not an exact science. While it has been rightly praised for closing cold-case criminal investigations, exonerating innocent prisoners and providing high-tech safety and security measures, fingerprint analysis is far from being a precise, foolproof and fail-safe method of identification. The grave impact of an incorrect analysis -- from loss of a person's job to loss of a person's freedom or life itself -- leaves no room for an acceptable error rate.
Human error in fingerprint analysis results in inconsistent and incorrect conclusions. In 2006, Itiel Dror, of Southampton University, performed a test in which he gave fingerprint evidence to experts from around the world. Each examiner was given eight cases to investigate. However, Dror did not tell them that these were the same cases they had previously rendered judgment on. The second time around, only two of the eight examiners reached the same conclusion in each of their eight cases. Among the other six experts, in six of the 32 cases, the same examiners reached a different conclusion the second time they evaluated the evidence.
In 2005, the FBI apologized for releasing serial killer Jeremy Jones when his fingerprints did not match those in the system. Jones was arrested three times for minor violations, but each time he was released because the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) failed to match his existing fingerprints with the new fingerprints taken at each arrest. The IAFIS is considered 98 percent accurate, but according to “A Cautionary Tale About Fingerprint Analysis and Reliance on Digital Technology”: "if the FBI does 40 million comparisons a year, 800,000 of the results are incorrect.”
Biometric fingerprint analyses authenticate a person's identification for access to facilities and computers. However, the validity of these analyses can be severely compromised. Tsutomu Matsumoto, of Japan’s Yokohama National University, created a mold of a human finger. This mold became known as a “gummy” finger because it was made of the same material as Gummi Bears. He then demonstrated how to obtain a residual fingerprint sample; enhance the image using a desktop program; and print, develop and mold the image into an artificial fingerprint clone. The inexpensive and relatively easy to make gummy finger fooled 11 fingerprint analysis systems.
Other Security Issues
In addition to fingerprint molds, biometric fingerprint analysis is susceptible to additional types of security breaches. “Biometrics: Risks and Controls" cites several other risks. Stealing fingerprint communication data would allow an intruder to gain access by electronic impersonation. Manipulating the temperature of a fingerprint scanner can produce erratic behavior and may result in a false authentication. Many fingerprint sensors are also vulnerable to residual attacks in which legitimate users leave behind a fingerprint impression that can be captured by dusting or breathing on the sensor.
- Forensic Science International; Cognitive issues in Fingerprint Analysis: Inter-and Intra-Expert Consistency and the Effect of a ‘Target’ Comparison; Itiel Dror, et al.; 2010
- Judicature; A Cautionary Note About Fingerprint Analysis and Reliance on Digital Technology; Michael Cherry, et al.; May 2006
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Importance of Open Discussion on Adversarial Analyses for Mobile Security Technologies; Tsutomu Matsumoto; May 14, 2002
- Information Systems Audit and Control Association; Biometrics: Risks and Controls; Christos K. Dimitriadis, et al,; 2004
Terri Williams began writing professionally in 1997, serving as media manager for a large nonprofit organization where she also edited books and created promotional content. She has written extensively on business communication, ethics, leadership, management, education and health. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.