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Automated Fingerprint Identification System Essay

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Updated: May 19th, 2021


In 1999, the FBI approved the implementation of the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The system gives access to 50 million fingerprint records collected in the database and creates the network of IAFIS computers. The current paper examines the use of the IAFIS regarding efficacy, constitutionality, and any benefits or advantages. The paper gives a definition of IAFIS and describes the steps for utilizing the system. The advantages and disadvantages of the system are analyzed to show what possibilities and challenges the system poses for crime scene investigators. The paper analyzes the ethical implications of using the automated system to compare crime scene fingerprints with those in a database. The potential for abuse of the system is evaluated to show the efficiency of the system.


Criminal investigators always need definite evidence about victims, suspects, and witnesses on a crime scene. Before the introduction of fingerprint identification, police officers relied solely on detailed portraits of people, descriptions of their actions, and clues found in the place of the crime and in the surrounding areas. In the 1880s, Alphonse Bertillon “was the most famous criminologist of his time, a household name for his ingenious method of identifying criminals by carefully measuring 11 key dimensions of their bodies” (Farebrother & Champkin, 2014, p. 36). Fingerprint identification revolutionized the investigation process. In 1999, the FBI started to use the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System to provide criminal detectives with access to 50 million fingerprint records collected in one database and create a network of computers for efficient search procedures. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the implementation of the IAFIS in the investigation process regarding efficacy, constitutionality, and any benefits or advantages.

Definition and Utilization of the IAFIS

For twenty years after the creation of the Bertillon system, police detectives used it as the sole available method for identification of people on a crime scene. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twentieth century, specialists identified the uniqueness of finger ridge patterns that revolutionized the process of human recognition. In the 1880s, Henry Faulds analyzed the qualities of fingerprints using Japanese and Chinese records on the subject. In cooperation with Charles Darwin, he proposed the uniqueness of fingerprints (Faulds & Herschel, 2015). Fingerprint identification is one of the core techniques used in modern investigations.

One hundred and nineteen years after the propositions of Henry Faulds, the FBI uses a fingerprint identification database with over fifty million records. The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System gives FBI detectives the possibility to make digital copies of founded samples and compare them with those in the database. The system links to the FBI computers allowing detectives implementation of fingerprint comparison from their offices.

Fingerprint identification with the use of the IAFIS technology comprises several steps. On the first step, a detective scans the founded fingerprints to create digital copies of them. The prints of both hands are digitalized for better results. On the second step, a computer transforms digital copies into geometric patterns for automatic comparison with the samples recorded in the database. In the third step, the samples undergo the comparison process with the use of various search algorithms. The system allows variable criteria and degrees of similarity between samples for the limitation of results (Kavati, Prasad, & Bhagvati, 2016). After the comparison, the system presents selected fingerprint records for the evaluation of similarity by an expert. Therefore, the result of the comparison depends not solely on the efficiency of computers but also on the expertise of the examiners.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the IAFIS

Before the creation of the IAFIS database, police detectives compared found fingerprints with the samples taken from the suspects. This approach depended heavily on the analysis of the clues and expertise of the detectives in the search for relevant people. The absence of clues and evidence could create serious hindrances to the investigation process. The automated search for similar samples allowed detectives to compare found fingerprints with millions of those in the database within seconds (Peralta, Triguero, Sanchez-Reillo, Herrera, & Benítez, 2014).

The use of the IAFIS helps to find suspects in criminal cases even with a limited number of clues and witnesses. Nowadays, ink samples are largely replaced with fully digital copies of fingerprints scanned with special equipment (Maltoni, Cappelli, & Meuwly, 2017). Nevertheless, the results of the search implemented with the IAFIS depend on the right choice of criteria and similarity rates. An expert who chooses between selected samples makes the final decision. Neither computers nor people are flawless and can make a mistake in the comparison of fingerprint samples. The quality of a fingerprint sample plays a decisive role in the success of the comparison. The IAFIS links to the state computers, but the software used on them can be incompatible with the system. The standardization of programs and hardware used in the state offices can solve this issue.

Ethical and Constitutional Implications

The process of fingerprint sample comparison can be reviewed in the context of ethical norms and the Constitution. The right of the detectives to compare found samples with the fingerprints in the database is the imminent issue in the investigation process. The mistakes in the comparison of samples can lead to false accusations harming the reputation of innocent people and cause emotional distress to erroneously alleged suspects. Nowadays, fingerprint recognition is used not only for the detection of criminals but also for security purposes. Locks with fingerprint recognition allow the users of smartphones and tablets to keep their information safe from potential intruders. Therefore, fingerprint samples play the role of passwords protected by the Constitution.

Potential Abuse of the System

Criminals can use various fingerprint alteration methods to affect the results of sample comparison by the IAFIS system. In the majority of the cases, a single vertical cut is enough to alter the pattern of the fingerprint and avoid its automatic detection by the system. Various acids and other chemicals can burn the fingers to the extent that their prints will not be recognizable. The more complex alteration includes surgical operations. Nevertheless, according to Kumar (2014), in the Unique I integrated automated altered fingerprint identification system, “altered fingerprints are matched with their unaltered mates, and a proper result is produced” (110).


The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System has revolutionized the process of crime investigation. The FBI detectives can connect to the database containing millions of records to compare found samples with already registered. The system is not flawless, but it helps to identify potential suspects within minutes. Nevertheless, detectives should take into account ethical and constitutional implications because fingerprints can be considered as passwords protected by the law. There are ways to abuse the system, but new technologies find even altered fingerprints in databases.


Farebrother, R., & Champkin, J. (2014). Alphonse Bertillon and the measure of man: More expert than Sherlock Holmes. Significance, 11(2), 36-39.

Faulds, H., & Herschel, W. J. (2015). Dactylography and the origin of finger-printing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kavati, I., Prasad, M. V., & Bhagvati, C. (2016). Search space reduction. In M. Dawson, D. R. Kisku, P. Gupta, J. K. Sing, W. Li (Eds.), Biometric Databases: A Review. Developing Next-Generation Countermeasures for Homeland Security Threat Prevention (pp. 236-263) New York, NY: IGI Global.

Kumar, S. (2014). Unique i: An integrated automated altered fingerprint identification system. IJRCCT, 3(3), 110-117.

Maltoni, D., Cappelli, R., & Meuwly, D. (2017). Automated fingerprint identification systems: From fingerprints to fingermarks. In M. Tistarelli & C. Champod (Eds.), Handbook of biometrics for forensic science (pp. 37-61). New York, NY: Springer International Publishing.

Peralta, D., Triguero, I., Sanchez-Reillo, R., Herrera, F., & Benítez, J. M. (2014). Fast fingerprint identification for large databases. Pattern Recognition, 47(2), 588-602.

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