Our fingerprints represent the ideal of uniqueness and individuality, we’ve had 100 years of cultural inculcation of the idea that no two fingerprints could possibly be alike. This view is controversially being challenged in courts and scientific literature. At the heart of the matter stands the fact that while fingerprints have long been advanced as the ultimate method of ensuring identity virtually no rigorous studies have been performed to determine its reliability. What is at issue here is not whether fingerprints are in fact completely unique, it’s probable that they are, but whether they can be accurately identified by experts. Can a thumb print from one person always be distinguished from the forefinger print of another?
These are not idle wonderings, in 1998 a Scottish police officer had her life turned upside down by just this question. At the time she contended that a print had been mis-identified as belonging to her in her testimony in a murder trial, this and her subsequent acquittal of charges of perjury for this testimony brought the entire field of fingerprinting into doubt. The aura of infallibility that has built up around fingerprints has led to a mentality within the field as well as culture at large that they are above criticism or debate. This sort of attitude is unacceptable in a scientific discipline, without the ability to challenge ideas we would stagnate into mindless tradition.
Finally, the usefulness of fingerprints in helping to solve crimes and determine identity is not being disputed, merely the unquestioning acceptance of their absolute authority. In the end fingerprinting has not yet outlived it’s usefulness but that does not mean that we must blindly follow the dictates of history. Care to bet your life on the inerrancy of the interpretation of lines on your skin?
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