A fingerprint is an impression left by the friction ridges of a human finger. The recovery of partial fingerprints from a crime scene is an important method of forensic science. Moisture and grease on a finger result in fingerprints on surfaces such as glass or metal. Deliberate impressions of entire fingerprints can be obtained by ink or other substances transferred from the peaks of friction ridges on the skin to a smooth surface such as paper. Fingerprint records normally contain impressions from the pad on the last joint of fingers and thumbs, though fingerprint cards also typically record portions of lower joint areas of the fingers.
Human fingerprints are detailed, nearly unique, difficult to alter, and durable over the life of an individual, making them suitable as long-term markers of human identity. They may be employed by police or other authorities to identify individuals who wish to conceal their identity, or to identify people who are incapacitated or deceased and thus unable to identify themselves, as in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
A fingerprint is formed on any opaque surface and is the impression of the friction ridges on the finger of a human. The matching of two fingerprints is among the most widely used and most reliable biometric techniques. Fingerprint matching considers only the obvious features of a fingerprint.
A friction ridge is a raised portion of the epidermis on the digits (fingers and toes), the palm of the hand or the sole of the foot, consisting of one or more connected ridge units of friction ridge skin. These are sometimes known as “epidermal ridges” which are caused by the underlying interface between the dermal papillae of the dermis and the interpapillary (rete) pegs of the epidermis. These epidermal ridges serve to amplify vibrations triggered, for example, when fingertips brush across an uneven surface, better transmitting the signals to sensory nerves involved in fine texture perception. These ridges may also assist in gripping rough surfaces and may improve surface contact in wet conditions.
Before computerization, manual filing systems were used in large fingerprint repositories. A fingerprint classification system groups fingerprints according to their characteristics and therefore helps in the matching of a fingerprint against a large database of fingerprints. A query fingerprint that needs to be matched can therefore be compared with a subset of fingerprints in an existing database. Early classification systems were based on the general ridge patterns, including the presence or absence of circular patterns, of several or all fingers. This allowed the filing and retrieval of paper records in large collections based on friction ridge patterns alone. The most popular systems used the pattern class of each finger to form a numeric key to assist lookup in a filing system. Fingerprint classification systems included the Roscher System, the Juan Vucetich System and the Henry Classification System. The Roscher System was developed in Germany and implemented in both Germany and Japan. The Vucetich System was developed in Argentina and implemented throughout South America. The Henry Classification System was developed in India and implemented in most English-speaking countries.
In the Henry Classification System there are three basic fingerprint patterns: loop, whorl, and arch, which constitute 60–65 percent, 30–35 percent, and 5 percent of all fingerprints respectively. There are also more complex classification systems that break down patterns even further, into plain arches or tented arches, and into loops that may be radial or ulnar, depending on the side of the hand toward which the tail points. Ulnar loops start on the pinky-side of the finger, the side closer to the ulna, the lower arm bone. Radial loops start on the thumb-side of the finger, the side closer to the radius. Whorls may also have sub-group classifications including plain whorls, accidental whorls, double loop whorls, peacock’s eye, composite, and central pocket loop whorls.
The system used by most experts, although complex, is similar to the Henry Classification System. It consists of five fractions, in which R stands for right, L for left, i for index finger, m for middle finger, t for thumb, r for ring finger and p(pinky) for little finger. The fractions are as follows:
Ri/Rt + Rr/Rm + Lt/Rp + Lm/Li + Lp/Lr
The numbers assigned to each print are based on whether or not they are whorls. A whorl in the first fraction is given a 16, the second an 8, the third a 4, the fourth a 2, and 0 to the last fraction. Arches and loops are assigned values of 0. Lastly, the numbers in the numerator and denominator are added up, using the scheme:
(Ri + Rr + Lt + Lm + Lp)/(Rt + Rm + Rp + Li + Lr)
A 1 is added to both top and bottom, to exclude any possibility of division by zero. For example, if the right ring finger and the left index finger have whorls, the fraction used is:
0/0 + 8/0 + 0/0 + 0/2 + 0/0 + 1/1
The resulting calculation is:
(0 + 8 + 0 + 0 + 0 + 1)/(0 + 0 + 0 + 2 + 0 + 1) = 9/3 = 3
Fingerprint identification, known as dactyloscopy, or hand print identification, is the process of comparing two instances of friction ridge skin impressions (see Minutiae), from human fingers or toes, or even the palm of the hand or sole of the foot, to determine whether these impressions could have come from the same individual. The flexibility of friction ridge skin means that no two finger or palm prints are ever exactly alike in every detail; even two impressions recorded immediately after each other from the same hand may be slightly different. Fingerprint identification, also referred to as individualization, involves an expert, or an expert computer system operating under threshold scoring rules, determining whether two friction ridge impressions are likely to have originated from the same finger or palm (or toe or sole).
An intentional recording of friction ridges is usually made with black printer’s ink rolled across a contrasting white background, typically a white card. Friction ridges can also be recorded digitally, usually on a glass plate, using a technique called Live Scan. A “latent print” is the chance recording of friction ridges deposited on the surface of an object or a wall. Latent prints are invisible to the naked eye, whereas “patent prints” or “plastic prints” are viewable with the unaided eye. Latent prints are often fragmentary and require the use of chemical methods, powder, or alternative light sources in order to be made clear. Sometimes an ordinary bright flashlight will make a latent print visible.
When friction ridges come into contact with a surface that will take a print, material that is on the friction ridges such as perspiration, oil, grease, ink, or blood, will be transferred to the surface. Factors which affect the quality of friction ridge impressions are numerous. Pliability of the skin, deposition pressure, slippage, the material from which the surface is made, the roughness of the surface, and the substance deposited are just some of the various factors which can cause a latent print to appear differently from any known recording of the same friction ridges. Indeed, the conditions surrounding every instance of friction ridge deposition are unique and never duplicated. For these reasons, fingerprint examiners are required to undergo extensive training. The scientific study of fingerprints is called dermatoglyphics.
Exemplar prints, or known prints, is the name given to fingerprints deliberately collected from a subject, whether for purposes of enrollment in a system or when under arrest for a suspected criminal offense. During criminal arrests, a set of exemplar prints will normally include one print taken from each finger that has been rolled from one edge of the nail to the other, plain (or slap) impressions of each of the four fingers of each hand, and plain impressions of each thumb. Exemplar prints can be collected using live scan or by using ink on paper cards.
In forensic science a partial fingerprint lifted from a surface, is called a latent fringerprint. Moisture and grease on fingers result in latent fingerprints on surfaces such as glass. But because they are not clearly visible their detection may require chemical development through powder dusting, the spraying of ninhydrin, iodine fuming, or soaking in silver nitrate. Depending on the surface or the material on which a latent fingerprint has been found, different methods of chemical development must be used. Forensic scientists use different techniques for porous surfaces, such as paper, and nonporous surfaces, such as glass, metal or plastic. Nonporous surfaces require the dusting process, where fine powder and a brush are used, followed by the application of transparent tape to lift the latent fingerprint off the surface.
While the police often describe all partial fingerprints found at a crime scene as latent prints, forensic scientists call partial fingerprints that are readily visible patent prints. Chocolate, toner, paint or ink on fingers will result in patent fingerprints. Latent fingerprints impressions that are found on soft material, such as soap, cement or plaster, are called plastic prints by forensic scientists.