The Evolution of Fingerprinting: The Revealing Nature of Today’s Fingerprints

September 23, 2015

The oldest and most accurate method of identifying an individual has just received a substantial upgrade. For centuries, fingerprints have been used for identification as well as evidence in criminal investigations and cases to identify the perpetrator of a crime. However, fingerprints have historically had two notable limitations: (1) they can only tell you the identity of an individual, and (2) they are unusable if any portion of the print is smudged. Fortunately, a recent advancement in fingerprinting technology may be the answer to bypass these limitations.
Scientists at ArroGen, an organization of highly trained analysts offering both current and state-of-the-art technology for full-service forensic data analysis, recently created a new technology to take fingerprinting down to the molecular level. This new category of forensic science, known as Fingerprint Molecular Identification (“FMID”), produces images with higher contrast, better clarity, and less background staining than existing fingerprinting technology. Furthermore, FMID provides investigators with a molecular profile and indisputable scientific results that can be used to greatly reduce the time and cost for identifying the perpetrator of a crime.
FMID was formed using ArroGen’s surface engineered silica based SupraNano particles combined with state-of-the-art mass spectrometry technology. FMID uses a powder containing sub-micron particles that bond with the amino and fatty acids present in fingerprint residue, which is then collected from a crime scene using lift tape. In the lab, the samples are placed within a mass spectrometer, which uses a laser to detect molecular profiles present in the fingerprint residue. These molecular profiles help to overcome the first limitation of fingerprinting by providing much more than the simple identification of an individual.

“Depending on the level of compounds in the secretions left in the print, the [mass spectrometer] can detect not only the sex of the person but whether whomever left the print had consumed drugs like cocaine, marijuana, heroin, or methamphetamine; smoked or chewed nicotine; or had touched a gun or explosives.

What’s even more impressive, ArroGen claims they can detect all of this information up to a month after a fingerprint has been left – and they’re in the process of testing for the ability to detect information from year-old fingerprints. The powder used by FMID creates greater sensitivity when coupled with the mass spectrometer. This sensitivity can make all the difference between succeeding and failing to get accurate results.
As for the second limitation, one of the greatest frustrations for crime scene investigators is discovering prints that they know (or strongly believe) are from the suspect, yet the prints are unusable because a slight portion is smudged. ArroGen believes it can overcome this obstacle, and be able to fill in the missing details of smudged fingerprints, by examining the chemical residue left behind and then mapping out the remainder of the print. A high-resolution image could then be produced for analysis.
Even with all the potential benefits from this new technology, there are several legal questions associated with its use. One of the more prevalent issues is the violation of civil liberties. Fingerprinting is commonly viewed as a fairly non-invasive investigative procedure. Because it is less invasive than other measures, it doesn’t require someone’s permission to be conducted.
Several civil liberties advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, believe that if an investigative procedure is somehow intruding into people’s bodies, it should not be allowed without probable cause. A common example of this type of procedure is DNA testing of a discarded cigarette butt, or can of soda. These civil liberties advocates argue that police and other investigators should have probable cause in order to use FMID because it is an easy way for those authorities to look into how individuals are living their lives before the authorities even have a need or right to know.
ArroGen’s viewpoint is that they are simply providing advanced solutions to assist those who fight crime and terror. Their product can improve results, while lowering cost, as long as it is used appropriately. However, the uses and legality of FMID will ultimately be up to the courts to decide, so we’ll have to wait and see.