Study: fingerprint accuracy doesn’t change over time

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Anil Jain, Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of computer science and engineering

New research answers a longly contested question — does accuracy of fingerprint identification stay the same over time and can they be used confidently for identification in court? Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of computer science and engineering Anil Jain explains his findings.

“We wanted to answer the question that has plagued law enforcement and forensic science for decades: Is fingerprint pattern persistent over time? We have now determined, with multilevel statistical modeling, that fingerprint recognition accuracy remains stable over time.”

The research, titled “Longitudinal study of fingerprint recognition,” appears in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. A select section of the research, seen below, explains the significance of these results — and rather pointedly acknowledges that usage of finger printing accuracy over time consistently begged the question that it was known reliable in the first place.

“Fingerprint recognition, which is considered to be a reliable means for human identification, has been used in many ap- plications ranging from law enforcement and forensics to unlocking mobile phones. Despite its successful deployment, the fundamental premise of fingerprint-based identification— persistence and uniqueness of fingerprints—has not yet been well studied, resulting in challenges to the admissibility of friction ridge evidence in courts of law. This study investigates the tendency of fingerprint similarity scores and recognition accuracy with respect to covariates characterizing properties of fingerprint impressions and demographics of subjects, in- cluding time interval between two fingerprints being com- pared in regard to the persistence of fingerprints. A multilevel statistical analysis is conducted with a longitudinal dataset of fingerprint records from 15,597 subjects.”

MSU Today spoke with a number of experts on the issue and what it means for criminal forensics….

  • “This study is one of the fundamental pieces of research on a topic that has always been taken for granted. The permanence of fingerprints has not been systematically studied since the seminal work of Herschel was presented in Galton’s book: Finger Prints (1892, Macmillian & Co.). Although operational practice has shown that the papillary patterns on our hands and feet are extremely stable and subject to limited changes (apart from scars), the study presented in PNAS provides empirical and statistical evidence.” Professor Christophe Champod, Université de Lausanne, Switzerland.
  • “This study is a monumental achievement and one that will benefit forensic science teams worldwide.” Capt. Greg Michaud, director of the Forensic Science Division, Michigan State Police.
  • “Dr. Jain’s analytic quantification on fingerprint persistence of the results significantly support early studies on fingerprint persistence and yet further support legal requirements for peer review and publication.” Jim Loudermilk, senior level technologist at the FBI Science and Technology Branch.

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