Fingerprint advances could aid investigators.
FINDING FINGERPRINTS that criminals have left be hind--and obtaining identifying information from those prints--may be getting easier, based on two new studies.
One study was conducted by a team led by David A. Russell of Norwich's University of East Anglia (UEA). It found that an antibody-based technique could differentiate the fingerprints of smokers from nonsmokers, according to UEA Press Officer Simon Dunford. The results were published in Angewandte Chemie. In the future, the researchers expect that the technique might be used for drug testing and disease diagnosis, as well as for helping law enforcement narrow the suspect pool in a criminal investigation.
In another, unrelated study, researchers at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem reported on new, more stable ways of getting patterns from fingerprints that might not be retrievable by other means. One technique altered traditional gold nanoparticle solution in a way that allows particles to stick to fingerprint residue through hydrophobic reactions that enable the production of high-quality prints in three minutes, according to Hebrew University spokesman Jerry Barach.
Of course, latent fingerprints obtained from a crime scene must be matched to a suspect through database records of identified fingerprints if they are to help law enforcement. But that's not easily accomplished for a number of reasons.
One obstacle is a lack of la tent print interoperability among the various Automated Fingerprint Information Systems (AFIS) maintained by states, cities, and localities. Although some of the systems work together, and there are regional and statewide databases, most AFIS systems cannot "talk" to each other.
Latent print examiners can often only search their own databases, for reasons ranging from software and technology discrepancies to legal considerations, according to Peter Komarinski, former AFIS project manager for the New York State Division of Criminal Jus rice Services.
Interoperability is being examined by various groups, such as the International Association for Identification (IAI). Additionally, Congress called on the National Academy of Sciences to create a forensic science committee that would examine AFIS interoperability as one of its tasks. The committee has already begun to look into the issue.
Since all of the fingerprints of arrestees from local, state, and regional systems should also be sent to the FBI, according to former FBI Latent Fingerprint Section Supervisor Robert Hazen, it might seem that the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) offers a work-around to the interoperability of the other systems. That system went live in 1999 and includes criminal histories, as well as civil and criminal ten-print and latent fingerprints.
However, at the National Academies' first committee meeting on the issue, John Onstwedder, of Illinois's Forensic Science Center at Chicago, explained that other factors inhibit the usefulness of IAFIS in matching latent prints.
The main problem is that IAFIS is geared toward ten-print fingerprints, which are typically taken during background checks or when suspects are booked, with tools ranging from ink to live scan technology. These prints have many good data points.
By contrast, latent prints are impressions that have been inadvertently left behind and are later retrieved through a variety of techniques, including powders, chemicals, and lasers. These images are less detailed. Therefore, in the latent print field, high quality images are integral, because there is often already so little to work with.
But as Peter Higgins, the FBI's former IAFIS program manager, pointed out in the meeting, when IAFIS was being developed in the 1990s, bandwidth to send images was very poor, so images were compressed. "Latent [examiners] will tell you that they're not happy with compression because even if it's relatively lossless, it still changes the fingerprint," Higgins said.
Another problem in matching latent prints to known prints is a dearth of qualified examiners. Although a database can often make a sure hit when comparing two sets of ten-print samples (referred to as "lights out"), systems can provide only "suggestions" of latent matches. It is ultimately up to the examiner to determine when to call it a true match.
Onstwedder said it takes anywhere from two to five years to train a latent print examiner. Ironically, if more AFIS systems become searchable through interoperability, it will increase the number of potential matches that have to be reviewed by a latent print examiner, thus further straining an already thin pool of qualified personnel.
James Bush, secretary of the IAI's Latent Print Certification Board, says there are only 799 certified IAI examiners in the United States and great demand for more. Bush points out that while someone does not have to be certified to be a qualified examiner, "it is important for examiners to do all that they can to help the court understand that they are competent."
Apart from the human resource issue, there are barriers to interoperability, including the willingness or ability of vendors to work together to come up with systems that are usable across states and cities.
Higgins points out that although AFIS vendors use several common techniques, they often differentiate themselves in how they store certain fingerprint attributes and characterizations. He says they might fear sharing such information with competitors because they might lose their "claim or self perceived advantage."
New laws outlining specifications and funding have to be passed for interoperability to become achievable, says Onstwedder. "The unfortunate reality is, until we mandate some of these things by legislation, we're not going to come together and we're not going to be under one system."
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