The Science Behind Fingerprint Background Checks

Most people have had fingerprint-based background checks conducted at some point, whether for a job, clearance, licensing, or security purposes. They usually begin with an agency asking you to have your prints scanned.

Fingerprint background checks are considered the gold standard because they provide superior accuracy compared to name-based searches. However, they’re not foolproof.

What Are Fingerprints?

Fingerprints are the unique ridge patterns on the ends of our fingers and thumbs. They provide a means of identification that can reveal an individual’s true identity, regardless of personal denial, assumed names, or changes in appearance due to illness, disease, or plastic surgery. 

Law enforcement was transformed by the capacity to identify people through their fingerprints because it previously had to rely on witness testimony to place suspects at a crime scene. It also allowed prosecutors to verify that a first-time offender was the perpetrator and not a recidivist, as recidivists tend to have more convictions and be harder to catch.

Researchers have a few theories about how fingerprints form, including that they may result from some pre-existing template or how skin cells communicate. They’ve also discovered that they start as small discs of cells on the outer layer of skin, called the epithelium, and then recruit different layers below them to create a pattern of ridges.

A fingerprint can be lifted from almost any surface using special powder techniques or chemical solutions, whether latent or patent. An examiner can then compare the developed latent print with a known one. If the class characteristics match, and there are no unexplained differences between the patterns, then the fingerprint can be identified to the exclusion of all other persons.

How Are Fingerprints Created?

Fingerprint background checks are a standard method of vetting applicants in some industries. For example, many healthcare companies rely on fingerprint background checks to check for criminal records when considering hiring new employees. This type of vetting is also used in some finance sectors and jobs that require a security clearance.

When identifying people, fingerprints are unique to each individual due to their ridges and patterns. These friction ridges form before a person is born, and the patterns never repeat. It makes fingerprints useful for vetting, as they cannot be faked or altered.

Although each fingerprint has its ridges, people have yet to be able to pinpoint how they are made. However, one theory is that a combination of genes and environmental factors creates a person’s fingerprints. Another theory suggests that fingerprints result from how a person’s skin wrinkles and folds.

Regardless of how fingerprints are created, they have incredible value to employers, law enforcement, and crime laboratories. Fingerprint analysis determines whether an unknown print matches known prints on file, establish crime timelines, and solves crimes. The FBI keeps an extensive database of fingerprints, and this database can be accessed by law enforcement agencies and private companies that need to verify identity or conduct a background check on someone.

What Are the Advantages of Fingerprints?

Fingerprints can be captured in various ways, such as ink-and-roll imprints or electronic fingerprinting (also known as a live scan). These scanning systems are typically used to capture and analyze an individual’s fingerprints for security applications such as password protection on smartphones, laptops, and tablet computers.

Many jobs require a background check, including a fingerprint scan, such as law enforcement and military positions. While a background check can include other information, such as credit history and education, the fingerprint-based scan provides a complete picture of an individual’s criminal record. In addition, a fingerprint-based scan can identify convicted felonies and misdemeanors that would otherwise be difficult to find using other verification methods, such as name-based background checks or photos.

Another advantage of fingerprints is that they are extremely hard to fake or manipulate. While there have been scientific demonstrations of how to spoof fingerprint scanners, the fact remains that it is nearly impossible to impersonate someone by using their prints.

Finally, fingerprints are unique to each person and can reduce false positive results in a background check. While many people may have the same name, it’s implausible that anyone shares a fingerprint. In the same way, a fingerprint can be linked to an arrest record, also called a “rap sheet,” and other details like the date of the crime, charges, and the case outcome.

What Are the Disadvantages of Fingerprints?

Fingerprint-based background checks are conducted when an individual applies for a job, license, or clearance from an agency. It involves the agency fetching a fingerprint-based criminal history from the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) database. It will include a person’s rap sheet, identifying the arrest dates and charges against them.

While fingerprints are a reliable identification method, they have some disadvantages. They can be manipulated and tampered with by sweat or dirt on the fingertips. They can be controlled and tampered with by sweat or dirt on the fingertips.

Another issue is that fingerprint examiners may be subject to context bias, which means they may consider other information when examining fingerprint evidence. For example, if an examiner believes the suspect is guilty, this could influence their decision. This kind of unconscious bias may impact the accuracy of fingerprint analysis.

Fingerprint-based background checks are less thorough than other types of background checks, such as those that use name and date of birth to locate records. Unlike names and dates of birth, fingerprints are unique to each person. It can result in some background searches for missing documents. Organizations need to conduct additional investigations in conjunction with fingerprint-based background checks.