fingerprint

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
Save to active project

fingerprint

fingerprint, an impression of the underside of the end of a finger or thumb, used for identification because the arrangement of ridges in any fingerprint is thought to be unique and permanent with each person (no two persons having the same prints have ever been found). Palm prints and footprints are also used, especially for identification of infants. Traditionally, impressions have been taken from a person using ink and paper, but in live-scan fingerprinting electronic images produced by a video scanner are converted by computer into binary codes, which can be more readily compared.

As an identification device, fingerprinting dates from antiquity, but modern systems began essentially with the work of Henry Faulds, William James Herschel, and Sir Francis Galton in the late 19th cent. Fingerprints gained acceptance as a more objective form of identification than visual recognition. The Galton method, elaborated by E. R. Henry, is still used in Great Britain and the United States. Juan Vucetich in Argentina, also using Galton as a guide, developed (1904) an alternate system that gained wide acceptance in Spanish-speaking countries.

Fingerprinting for identification of criminals was first used in connection with the Bertillon system. Most countries now require that all criminals be fingerprinted. Methods have also been devised for developing fingerprint impressions left by criminals at the scene of a crime. The most common uses a brush and powder to mark the fingerprint, which is then photographed and lifted from the surface using tape. The reliability of fingerprints for criminal identification is complicated by the need to use crime scene prints that may be partial or distorted and by the technical competency of the person identifying the print (computer identification is often used as an aid).

In 2002 a federal judge ruled that, because of inconsistencies in laboratory identification of fingerprints, fingerprint identification as practiced was not accurate enough to be used without qualification, and that an expert cannot testify that a person's fingerprints absolutely match those found at a crime, though an expert may point out similarity between two sets of prints and may state that no two people have identical prints. The judge reversed himself two months later, deciding that although the FBI's fingerprint identification procedures were not proven scientifically according to a strict standard they were nonetheless sufficiently reliable.

In the United States, prints also are taken of civilian government employees and members of the armed forces and by some banks and other agencies. Some states now require a thumbprint when applying for a driver's license, and banks and check-cashing institutions are increasingly requiring a thumbprint before cashing checks, particularly in states that use license thumbprints. Some stores also require thumbprints when paying by check or even by credit card. A national fingerprint file and database is maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

See C. Beavan, Fingerprints (2001), and S. A. Cole, Suspect Identities (2001). Technical works on the subject include H. C. Lee and R. E. Gaensslen, ed., Advances in Fingerprint Technology (2d ed., 2001), D. R. Ashbaugh, Quantitative-Qualitative Friction Ridge Analysis (1999), and D. L. Faigman et al., Modern Scientific Evidence (2d ed., 2002).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

fingerprint
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?