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Penn State Forensic Scientists to Study Reliability of Fingerprint Identification Techniques

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While most of America’s knowledge of forensic science doesn’t extend much further than the CSI coming from their TV screens, those involved in science know there’s much more to it than that. Forensic science is a major “to die for,” and it is really an area of science in which constant research is being conducted and new discoveries are being made. CSI is actually right on point in their attempt to test fingerprints, but there is never mention of questioning of the tests. Since fingerprint comparison is one of the cornerstones of forensic crime investigation, and is recognized as an efficient means of personal identification, it is critical that the forensic examination of fingerprint retains public confidence.

However, recent Daubert and Frye court hearings, as well as a report from the National Academies of Science, have brought to light the need for improving the understanding of the accuracy and reliability of friction ridge examination.

Penn State will lead a two-year project in collaboration with the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, to provide tools to demonstrate and strengthen the accuracy of forensic fingerprint comparison.

According to Cedric Neumann, assistant professor of statistics and forensic science at Penn State, “at the moment, fingerprint examiners heuristically decide when they have 'enough features' to conclude that two fingerprints come from the same finger. We are not claiming that this process leads fingerprint examiners to make erroneous identifications, nevertheless, they struggle to explain and support their decision making-process, Our research will provide tools and data to inform this heuristic process and make it more transparent.”

The goal of the research is to study the current reproducibility of the fingerprint comparison process and to develop training protocols, methods, and quantifiable measures to support operational decisions of identity made by examiners when comparing fingerprints. Additionally, the research will provide quality assurance tools that will support fingerprint examiners at each stage of the fingerprint comparison process.

The importance of such research is immeasurable, and the results that could ensue will mean huge strides for the field of forensics.

“As forensic scientists, perhaps more than in most other sciences, we need to be able to demonstrate the reliability and validity of the techniques we are using to detect crime and ultimately convict or prove innocent suspects,” Neumann said. “A decade of admissibility challenges in court and the recent National Academy of Science report on the state of forensic science in the United States clearly highlight the need for a shift towards more science and greater transparency in the forensic processes. Again, we are certainly not claiming that many errors were made in the past, however, the thoughts processes of forensic scientists when making identification were certainly not transparent and data-driven.”

According to Neumann, conducting the research as an international endeavor is nothing but positive.  In the end, it will be more beneficial for Penn State students and the wider community.

“The School of Forensic Science from the University of Lausanne is the oldest and one of the most prestigious forensic science institutes in the world,” Neumann said. “Collaborating with them demonstrates the credibility of our teaching and research program and, since we are a new program, allows us to access core competences, knowledge and technology that took years to obtain and build.”

So what will the research team discover? No one knows for sure – yet – but hopefully the discovery will lead to an improved understanding of the reliability of fingerprint comparison.

For more information on Penn State’s Forensic Science program, visit http://forensics.psu.edu/.

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