Tag Archives: Fingerprints

We have an app for that…. The future of real-time fingerprint identification

It was interesting listening to recent comments by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC), Tom Winsor, saying that the police do not have access to the current state-of-the-art technology to enable them to effectively prevent crime. In the main, I think he is correct; though there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

When it comes to technology it takes a frustratingly long time to test security and compatibility and procure and implement new software and hardware. By the time this process has been completed technology has advanced to a new stage.

The majority of police officers are supplied with ‘old device’ BlackBerrys that allow them to access force emails and local and national police data; but in the vast majority of instances a lot of the phones functionality has been disabled due to security policies. This calls into question that even if officers were supplied with the latest technology, would they be able to use them to their full potential?

Also, from my experiences with talking to different police forces, IT departments have been particularly hit badly due to the current financial climate and would find it difficult to implement new large-scale technology projects.

Where does this leave fingerprint identification?

The identification of individuals electronically by fingerprints has been long regarded as reliable and robust. The use of LiveScan technology at custody suites to offer non-verified (no human verification) results against a full tenprint search has been used by some police forces in England and Wales for over 20 years and has been adopted by every police force since the implementation of the National LiveScan Rollout in 2000/2001. This has been further bolstered by the piloting of lights-out tenprint technology, which would rely wholly on an automated decision as to identity in the majority of cases. This has progressed in recent years to the roll out of MobileID devices, for use by police officers on patrol to query a persons identification by the roadside or in the street; or for use at large scale public gatherings like sporting events or music festivals.

A recent pilot exercise in the West Midlands has recently resulted in positive results http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-22165096 Some of the issues that exist in relation of taking controlled fingerprints, especially in a custody environment, relate to quality. There are a number of factors that affect fingerprint quality:

  • The competence of the taker
  • The willingness of the donor
  • Skin condition of the donor
  • Maintenance and cleanliness of the equipment

This is because the nature of taking fingerprints involves the taker controlling the donor’s digits in a ‘rolling’ movement whilst maintaining contact with a fixed platen in order to capture the maximum amount of ridge detail possible.

Hand dryer
Hand dryer

I believe the future of capturing ridge detail, quickly and with the best possible quality is through a contactless, 3D, accurate, laser-scanning facility. I have always pictured this device to look like the hand dryers you would find in a public washroom (pictured).

If you are interested in this technology, there have been a few research documents recently published by the US National Institute of Justice:

What about marks found at scenes of crime?

Police forces have been given the capability to retrieve fingerprints from crime scenes and send them to their local fingerprint bureau, by scanning the evidence either directly at the scene or when the CSI returns to their base using the techniques outlined in the Remote Transmission Project. This method is seen as a little cumbersome, as the technology required would be a computer and scanner, which are not considered the most mobile of equipment.

Also, although it is possible to use all mobile networks and public wifi to transmit data (using sufficient firewalls), a lot of force IT possible restrict the mobile networks and disable the use of wifi on their mobile equipment. These restrictions seriously impact the amount of data that can be sent from scenes.

I have been recently enjoying watching the ‘Castle’ show with my wife via the on-demand service from my television supplier. It is a fictional crime show that I have been able to tolerate, as the mainstream forensic element of the programme is not as far-fetched as many of the CSI based shows (although the pathologist can conjure up some results that even the mighty Quincy would have found astonishing).

That was until I came across the episode ‘Tick, tick, tick’ in series 2. In this episode (and the next instalment ‘Boom’), the Boston Police Force are joined by the FBI to help solve a case of a serial killer. Although there is probably a belief that the likes of the FBI, US Secret Service, Interpol and the National Crime Agency (NCA) have access to amazing technology and resources that can provide results in seconds; this is a huge misconception and from colleagues I know in these organisations they are restricted by the same constraints as everyone else, if not more due to the security conscious nature of their work. About 10 minutes into the episode you will see the FBI agent take a split second to snap a picture, using her smartphone, of a fingerprint that was visible on a highly lacquered bag, and send it for a search. Apart from the highly reflective surface of the bag, not allowing sufficient time for the camera to focus and not providing any mechanism to scale the fingerprint…. the actual theory behind the process is not beyond the realms of current technology.

Some police forces in England and Wales have already started experimenting with smartphones and tablets to capture prints at crime scenes (in addition to recovering them using conventional evidence recovery techniques) and send them electronically to the fingerprint bureau, where they would by manually imported into the national IDENT1 system for an automated search.

The results of which could be manually compared and returned to the CSI or Investigating Officer within an hour. The problems still exist on what technology and data transfer protocols would acceptable to a police force. Modern phones and tablets now have a camera which can take images in excess of 8MP and provide enough clarity to make them suitable for an automated search. There are also tools, such as macro lenses that can be acquired that can improve image quality.

However, they would probably not conform to the internationally recognised standards recognised for the transfer of fingerprint data (NIST); therefore caution must be exercised when acting upon this intelligence; and it will still be likely for the evidence to be captured by conventional lifting and /or using DSLR photography.

What about returning real time unverified scene mark hits?

The ultimate CSI Effect moment is if the CSI or Investigating Officer can receive a fingerprint identification within seconds of sending it without human intervention… but is this possible? Well yes… in theory… I have seen 2 ‘prototypes’ of this kind of technology by the leading biometric technology companies, though they have been demonstrated using very small databases and carefully manufactured examples. The problem with crime scene marks is that they are left unintentionally and in the vast, vast majority of cases, these marks are of much inferior quality than fingerprints taken in a controlled environment at a custody suite or using MobileID.

To reach a high level of confidence as to identity, LiveScan and MobileID requires more than one good quality print from different fingers of the same person to facilitate this. You are very rarely afforded this kind of luxury at a crime scene. When these marks are manually searched by a human, the results are returned as a list of the most likely candidates and require careful comparison by an expert to determine if there is a match. You could potentially improve results by limiting the size of the database to which you are searching. It is generally understood that the majority of acquisitive crimes are committed by a small minority of people, and it is also recognised that the majority of low level habitual criminals will commit crimes within a small radius of where they live / work. If the search can take these 2 things into consideration (this data is available on PNC) then it could markedly improve the chance of a positive hit.

The only problem with this, is that it is susceptible to psychological bias. If a non-verified result is returned of a well know offender from the local area, it may cause the officer to confidently believe that they were involved, even though the print may not be theirs. Police officers for over a century are used to the premise that fingerprint evidence is practically infallible and not only can they arrest on the basis of an identification, but also charge and even secure a conviction, even if fingerprints are the only evidence in the case (R v Castleton). As a result, receiving non-verified hits in this manner would require a change in attitude from investigating officers, so that they only use this information as limited intelligence which could act as a potential early line of enquiry, which must be treated with caution.

The Great Train Robbery Continued

Following the death of Ronnie Biggs and the release of 2 BBC Dramas documenting the events of The Great Train Robbery, I thought I would just publish a short update to my previous blog on this subject.

The first drama, which was broadcast last night, and focused on the robbers angle of the offence provided us with a few clues of the impending role that fingerprints would play in the investigation.  It certainly depicted that the robbers were careful to wear gloves ‘for the majority of their time at Leatherslade Farm’…. but not all the time; and due to them having to vacate their hideout in a hurry, they feared it was only a matter of time before evidence was found.

New Scotland Yard - December 2013
New Scotland Yard – December 2013

Tonight’s episode will focus on the police response and investigation.

The tasters on the programme website hints that fingerprints will play a prominent role, with Tim Pigott-Smith being cast in the role of ‘the finger print man’, DS Maurice Ray of the New Scotland Yard Fingerprint Department (although Mr. Ray is ranked as a Superintendent at this time in the book ‘The Fingerprint story’).

There is a short description of Superintendent Rays court testimony, as reported by The Glasgow Herald, published online.

I’m interested to know who the fingerprint consultant used in the programme was.  Mr Pigott-Smith states he is a retired officer.

If you are unable to watch tonight’s programme then it will be available on BBC IPlayer, as is last nights installment.

I will hopefully get around to reviewing the drama in the near future.

A ‘note’ of forensic opportunity – or forensic challenge

I am sure many of my British readers would have read with interest as I did this week on the Bank of England’s proposal to replace the current paper bank notes with a polymer version from 2016.

Money and Fingerprints
Money and Fingerprints

You can read the BBC article on the proposal here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24029785

The benefits around security and durability are very well presented, but from a forensic perspective I have a number of questions……..

The current paper notes are porous, which make them (in theory) ideal for forensic examination as they can easily retain evidence such as fingerprints, DNA, drug residue etc.

To quieten some of the forensicators amongst you who are now shouting at your screen, I did say in theory.  Of course, in practice it is incredibly difficult to obtain meaningful evidence in most cases due the fact that most bank notes have been circulated between tens, hundreds and even thousands of people; which makes it difficult to differentiate between different donors… and even if you could, it would be virtually impossible to date the evidence (in the case of fingerprints), or discount transference / contamination for other evidence types.

Nevertheless, bank notes can be a common and crucial piece of evidence in many types of criminal investigation; therefore it is important to understand the forensic impacts of any new materials being used for bank currency.

Actually I believe from a fingerprint point of view, there could be more opportunities to retrieve better quality, more meaningful fingerprints; as the notes will not be permanently folded or ‘scrunched up’, and ‘older’ prints may be wiped off with regular use and you ‘may’ be left with the most current ‘owners’ prints…. but this belief will need to be confirmed with research and experimentation.

So, how would you visualise, develop, enhance, recover and record forensic evidence? … This is a question that I will be raising with work, but I am keen to learn your thoughts.

For example, there are a number of countries who have already adopted plastic notes e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Canada; who I am sure have already considered some of this??

Another question I have is around the note’s durability…..

If the new material can withstand a trip to the washing machine and be rid of stains such as red wine, how do these affect forensic deterrents such as DNA SmartWater and exploding dye packs (commonly used to prevent robberies in transit)?

Over to you……


The Great Train Robbery

50 Years ago today, 13th August 1963, a development was made that was going to blow the investigation into The Great Train Robbery wide open.  That was the discovery of the robbers lair, Leatherslade Farm.

Now 5 days after the crime was committed, the farm was deserted… but either due a hasty departure, or a failure on some of the gang to “cleanse the scene” of any clues that might link them, an Aladdins cave of potential forensic evidence was left behind.

Although, the Fingerprint Department from New Scotland Yard were involved in the case from day 1 of the inquiry,  there was very little for them to work with until the farm was found.

In total 9 of the convicted 10 robbers were identified to the farm (or evidence recovered from items found at the farm) by way of their finger and palm prints.

Probably the most infamous piece of evidence was a Monopoly game that bore the prints of Ronnie Biggs and Bruce Reynolds (the leader of the gang).

Strangely enough I have uncovered some coincidences between myself and Mr. Reynolds (who died earlier this year).  He had the middle name Richard (my forename) and we were born on the same date (although I came along quite a few years later).

For more information on the fingerprint aspects of this investigation, I would recommend reading Chapter 17 (The Great Train Robbery) of the book ‘The Fingerprint Story’ by Gerald Lambourne, who was one of the fingerprint experts in the case and later took charge of the New Scotland Yard Fingerprint Bureau.  The book is currently out of print, but can usually be sourced at reasonable prices on Amazon or Ebay.


Behind the Times… The story behind the New York Times Article

I was approached in early May by @pagankennedy to answer a few questions on fingerprints to assist in an article she was authoring for the New York Times Magazine.

I was pleased to co-operate once I had the permission from my bosses at the National Policing Improvement Agency.

The article was published today (8th June 2012) and can be read at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/magazine/who-made-those-fingerprints.html.

The article itself is not as critical of fingerprinting as a lot of what makes the press in these DNA idolising times, though I am surprised Detective Tufft believes DNA evidence trumps Fingerprints.

Fingerprints are still recovered at more crime scenes than DNA as it is cheaper to process; it is still the only way to distinguish between identical siblings and is by far more difficult to transfer or contaminate than DNA… so if an offenders DNA was found on a cigarette butt outside a murder scene, but their fingerprints were found in the victims blood on the murder weapon… then as an investigator, I know what evidence I would class as more crucial!

As I fully expected, a lot of what I contributed was edited out (which is certainly no criticism of the journalist), but I am happy to share with you the full text I submitted:

What are the basic steps used today to capture a fingerprint at the crime scene? The first task for a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) at a scene is to find the fingerprints; and although sometimes they can be visible to the human eye if they are left in substances such as dirt, clay, ink or blood; very often they are invisible as they are deposited as a layer of sweat from the ridges on the hand.

These can be ‘visualized’ by applying specialist powders or chemicals. It is then necessary for the CSI to record the fingerprint impressions that they find. This is commonly done by either photographing the prints in-situ, or using specialist gels and tapes to ‘lift’ the prints and attach them to a plastic sheet.

The CSI is then required to transmit these prints to their Latent Print Unit (Fingerprint Office) for comparison, or a computerized search. This is often facilitated by hand delivery, though more and more agencies are starting to use digital technology to capture and directly transmit crime scene prints, which generates more speedy matches and arrests.

Do forensics analysts still use the old-style language (loops, whorls) to talk about prints? Or has that all been done away with, in the era of computerized scanners? Although computerization has assisted the Latent Print Examiner (Fingerprint Expert) in finding possible matches, most fingerprint systems still rely on a human to make the final decision on whether a match has been found; and there are still many occasions whereby an expert will be required to examine a large number of prints.

On these occasions the expert will often use pattern types (arches, loops and whorls etc.) to include or exclude candidates from a more detailed comparison.

So yes, these terms that have been used in the profession for over 100 years are still used worldwide on a daily basis.

Your ancestor Charles Stockley Collins was the first person to introduce fingerprint evidence in the British court. Could you say a little about that case and/or the technical innovations that allowed him to use this kind of evidence? Fingerprints were used as a secondary means to identify habitual criminals in Great Britain since 1894, but the development of a classification system at the turn of the 20th century by Edward Henry (latterly Sir Edward Henry), with a significant contribution from his Indian assistants Aziz ul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose enabled them to be the most effective and efficient way to identify persons (which is still is) and paved the way to the creation of a Fingerprint Bureau at Scotland Yard.

This Bureau was initially staffed by Henry, Inspector Charles Steadman, Sergeant Charles Stockley Collins and Constable Frederick Hunt.

It wasn’t too long before they started to pay more attention to fingerprints found at crime scenes and there are two cases that are remembered in the history books.

The first ever fingerprint evidence presented in a British court was in 1902 in the case of a burglary of a home in Denmark Hill, London where ivory billiard balls were stolen. Fingerprints were found on a newly painted window sill. These scene prints matched fingerprints in Scotland Yard’s files in the name of Harry Jackson. Mr Jackson was convicted of the offence on the strength of that fingerprint evidence.

The next notable case was that of the first fingerprint evidence in a British murder trial. Two shopkeepers, Mr and Mrs Farrow were brutally killed during a robbery at the shop where they lived and worked. Fingerprints were located on a cashbox from which money had been stolen and were matched to an Alfred Stratton. Alfred was arrested for the murders together with his brother Albert, both of whom were convicted and sentenced to death. The fingerprint evidence in both these cases was presented by Charles Stockley Collins whose confident and expert testimony assured that fingerprints would be accepted as a reliable form of forensic evidence in British courts.

I was astounded to uncover recently that I have a family connection to Stockley Collins, who is my first cousin, four times removed. This had no conscious bearing on my career choice; but it has given me added respect and pride for some of the people who have been able to pioneer and develop the use of fingerprints to aid crime solving.

Please feel free to add your personal comments here and / or on the NY Times website.