In May 2004, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice charged with investigating all violations of federal laws except those assigned to some other federal agency. showed up at Brandon Mayfield's law office and arrested him in connection with the March 2004 bombing of a train station in Madrid, Spain. The Oregon lawyer was a suspect because several experts had matched one of his fingerprints to a print found near the scene of the terrorist attack.
But Mayfield was innocent. When the truth emerged 2 weeks later, he was released from jail. Still, Mayfield had suffered unnecessarily, and he's not alone.
Police officers often use fingerprints successfully to nab criminals. However, according to according to
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3. a recent study by criminologist Simon Cole Simon Cole is Chief Executive of UBC Media Group. He co-founded the Unique Broadcasting Company in 1989, which floated on the London Stock Exchange in July 2000 as part of UBC Media Group. of the University of California The University of California has a combined student body of more than 191,000 students, over 1,340,000 living alumni, and a combined systemwide and campus endowment of just over $7.3 billion (8th largest in the United States). , Irvine, authorities may make as many as 1,000 incorrect fingerprint matches each year in the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. .
"The cost of a wrong decision is very high," says Anil K. Jain, a computer scientist at Michigan State University Michigan State University, at East Lansing; land-grant and state supported; coeducational; chartered 1855. It opened in 1857 as Michigan Agricultural College, the first state agricultural college. in East Lansing East Lansing, city (1990 pop. 50,677), Ingham co., S central Mich., a suburb of Lansing, on the Red Cedar River; inc. 1907. The city was first known as College Park, but was renamed when it was incorporated. .
Jain is one of a number of researchers around the world who are trying to develop improved computer systems for making accurate fingerprint matches. These scientists sometimes even engage in competitions in which they test their fingerprint-verification software to see which approach works best.
The work is important because fingerprints have a role not just in crime solving but also in everyday life. A fingerprint scan may someday be your ticket to getting into a building, logging on to a computer, withdrawing money from an ATM, or getting your lunch at school.
Everyone's fingerprints are different, and we leave marks on everything we touch. This makes fingerprints useful for identifying individuals.
People recognized the uniqueness of fingerprints as far back as 1,000 years ago, says Jim Wayman. He's director of the biometric-identification research program at San Jose San Jose, city, United States
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It wasn't until the late 1800s, however, that police in Great Britain Great Britain, officially United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, constitutional monarchy (2005 est. pop. 60,441,000), 94,226 sq mi (244,044 sq km), on the British Isles, off W Europe. The country is often referred to simply as Britain. started using fingerprints to help solve crimes. In the United States, the FBI began collecting prints in the 1920s.
In those early days, police officers or agents coated a person's fingers with ink. Using gentle pressure, they then rolled the inked fingers on a paper card. The FBI organized the prints on the basis of patterns of lines, called ridges. They stored the cards in filing cabinets.
Today, computers play an important role in storing fingerprint records. Many people getting fingerprinted simply press their fingers on electronic sensors that scan their fingertips "Fingertips" is a 1963 number-one hit single recorded live by "Little" Stevie Wonder for Motown's Tamla label. Wonder's first hit single, "Fingertips" was the first live, non-studio recording to reach number-one on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in the United States. and create digital images, which are stored in a database.
The FBI's computer system now holds about 600 million images, Wayman says. The records include the fingerprints of anyone who immigrates to the United States, works for the government, or gets arrested.
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To make such searches possible, the FBI has developed the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) is a national fingerprint and criminal history system maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). . For each search, computers run through millions of possibilities and spit out the 20 records that most closely match a crime-scene print. Forensics See computer forensics. experts make the final call on which print is the most likely match.
Despite these advances, fingerprinting is not an exact science. Prints left at a crime scene are often incomplete or smeared. And our fingerprints are always changing in slight ways. "Sometimes they're wet, sometimes dry, sometimes damaged," Wayman says.
The process of taking a fingerprint can itself change the print that's recorded, he adds. For example, the skin may shift or roll when a print is taken, or the amount of pressure may vary. Each time, the resulting fingerprint is a little bit different.
Computer scientists have to be careful when they write programs to analyze prints. If a program requires too exact a match, it won't find any possibilities. If it looks too broadly, it will produce too many choices. To keep these requirements in balance, programmers are constantly refining their techniques for sorting and matching patterns.
Researchers are also trying to find better ways to collect fingerprints. One idea is to invent a scanner that would allow you to simply hold your finger in the air, without putting pressure on a surface.
Further improvements are necessary because, as Mayfield's case demonstrates, things can go wrong. The FBI did find several similarities between Mayfield's fingerprint and the crime-scene print, but the print found at the bomb site turned out to belong to someone else. In this case, the FBI experts initially jumped to the wrong conclusion.
Fingerprint scans aren't just for solving crimes. They can also play a role in controlling access to buildings, computers, or information.
At the door of Jain's lab at Michigan State, for example, researchers enter an ID number into a keypad and swipe their fingers across a scanner to enter. No key or password is required.
At Walt Disney World Noun 1. Walt Disney World - a large amusement park established in 1971 to the southwest of Orlando
Orlando - a city in central Florida; site of Walt Disney World , admission passes now include fingerprint scans that identify holders of annual or seasonal tickets. Some grocery stores are experimenting with fingerprint scanners to make it easier and faster for customers to pay for groceries. Fingerprint readers at certain ATMs control cash withdrawals, foiling criminals who might try using a stolen card and pin number.
Schools are starting to use finger-identification technology to speed students through lunch lines and to track library books. One school system has installed an electronic-fingerprint system to keep tabs on students riding on school buses.
The number of potential applications of fingerprint scans for identifying people is huge, but privacy is a concern. The more information that stores, banks, and governments collect about us, the easier it may be for them to track what we are doing. That makes many people uncomfortable.
Your fingerprint says a lot about you. Every time you use your hands, you leave a little bit of yourself behind.
Additional Information Questions about the Article Word Find: Fingerprints http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20060503/Feature1.asp From Science News for Kids May 3, 2006. Copyright [C] 2006 Science Service. All rights reserved.