Interesting article about the FBIs database of fingerprints...
By Flynn McRoberts and Steve Mills
Tribune staff reporters
Published January 3, 2005
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. -- Deep inside a sprawling complex tucked in the hills of this Appalachian town, a room full of supercomputers attempts to sift America's guilty from its innocent.
This is where the FBI keeps its vast database of fingerprints, allowing examiners to conduct criminal checks from computer screens in less than 30 minutes--something that previously took them weeks as they rummaged through 2,100 file cabinets stuffed with inked print cards.
But the same digital technology that has allowed the FBI to speed such checks so dramatically over the last few years has created the risk of accusing people who are innocent, the Tribune has found.
Across the country, police departments and crime labs are submitting fingerprints for comparisons and for entry into databases, using digital images that may be missing crucial details or may have been manipulated without the FBI knowing it.
Not unlike a picture from a typical digital camera, a digital fingerprint provides less complete detail than a traditional photographic image. That matters little with pictures from the family vacation. But when the digital image is of a fingerprint, the lack of precision raises the specter of false identifications in criminal cases.
"There's a risk that not only would they exclude someone incorrectly--we have the potential to identify someone incorrectly," said David Grieve, a prominent fingerprint expert who is the latent prints training coordinator for the Illinois State Police crime lab system.
An FBI-sponsored group of fingerprint examiners was concerned enough about the quality of digital images that in 2001 it recommended doubling their resolution. Three years later, though, the vast majority of police agencies still use equipment with the lower resolution.
Equally troublesome, the most commonly used image-enhancement software, Adobe Photoshop, leaves no record of some of the changes police technicians can perform as they clean up fingerprint images to make them easier to compare.
This seemingly esoteric issue is crucial because it raises questions about a bulwark of the criminal justice system: chain of custody. If authorities cannot prove that a fingerprint is an accurate representation of the original and show exactly how it was handled, its validity can be questioned.
FBI officials recognize the resolution problem but say it leads to overlooking guilty people, not falsely accusing the innocent.
"The risk that we're hearing is that we miss people--because the resolution isn't enough--not that we're identifying people incorrectly," said Jerry Pender, deputy assistant director at the FBI's Clarksburg facility.
Potential for error rising
Such confidence is unwarranted, according to digital-imaging specialists and some leading fingerprint experts. And they say the potential for mistakes is growing inexorably as police departments around the nation switch from old inked cards to digitized computer images.
To do so, technicians scan an inked card into a computer, which converts it into a pattern of 0s and 1s that digitally represent the image, similar to how a fax machine works. And, like a fax machine, the process of digitizing the fingerprint loses considerable amounts of detail.
"It gives examiners the misleading impression that they're getting a better-quality image to examine," said Michael Cherry, an imaging expert who is on the evidentiary committee of the Association for Information and Image Management, a business technology trade group. "These images actually can eliminate fingerprint characteristics that might exclude a suspect."
Measuring the number of cases in which a digital image may have wrongly linked a suspect to a crime scene is difficult. The technology is so new that many defense attorneys do not know to ask if the fingerprint image entered into evidence has been digitized.
"I think it's a very real problem, but it's under the [radar] still," said Mary Defusco, director of training at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a non-profit group that represents indigent defendants. "We have to get up to speed on it."
One of the nation's first successful challenges to the use of digital fingerprinting in the courtroom came in 2003 in Broward County, Fla.