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Forensic science and fingerprints
Forensic science and fingerprints

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2.1 The use of fingerprints in identification and the classification of fingerprints

The following extract from Forensic Science (2nd edition, 2008) was written before July 2007. Since it was written, a new and expanded database has replaced and incorporated NAFIS. The new database IDENT1 continues to do what NAFIS did but has additional services and capabilities. In particular, it combines the England and Wales data with Scottish finger- and palm-print data. Fingerprints can now be matched for the first time across the three countries of England, Scotland and Wales. A new addition is the palm-print database. Scotland had a palm-print database previously but the searchable database including England and Wales only became available in late 2007. It is intended that in the future IDENT1 will encompass a wider range of biometric data such as iris (eye) scans and facial imaging. The information in the below extract concerning the use of fingerprint data is still useful as at present the fingerprint analysis using IDENT1 is essentially the same as it was with NAFIS. The additional palm-print capability is not covered in this course.

Reading 1

Task 1

Please read the following extract from Chapter 4 of Forensic Science by Andrew Jackson and Julie Jackson (2nd edition, 2008), which describes the NAFIS fingerprint database; then answer the questions below.

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Question 1

  1. When is a fingerprint first formed in a person and how does it change throughout a life?
  2. What supports the assertion that no two fingerprints are identical?


  1. Fingerprints are formed in the foetus at about 28 weeks. They are formed of 'friction ridge skin' and so do not change throughout life and are maintained for some time after death.
  2. The most compelling evidence to date is that no two identical fingerprints have ever been found, despite there being probably hundreds of millions on file throughout the world. Even identical twins who share the same DNA do not have identical fingerprints.

Question 2

  1. What are the three most common patterns in fingerprints?
  2. In England and Wales there was a system called NAFIS which has now been superseded by IDENT1. Answer the following question assuming that IDENT1 has just incorporated NAFIS without changing the policy on fingerprints. If a person had their fingerprints taken in 2006 in connection with a crime but was not charged or cautioned in connection with the offence, will their fingerprints be on the IDENT1 database?
  3. Why do you think that national fingerprint databases need to store '10-print' sets of fingerprints, rather than one or two fingerprints?


  1. The three basic ridge patterns are loops, arches and whorls.
  2. NAFIS was a national fingerprint collection for England and Wales holding about 5 million ten-print sets. After 2001 there was no need to remove a person's fingerprints from NAFIS, even if they were not cautioned. As the database has been carried forward unchanged to IDENT1, this does not necessarily mean that such a person's fingerprints will definitely be on the database but there is a good possibility that they will be on it.
  3. As no two fingerprints are identical - even those on our own hands - all ten fingerprints must be on file if an individual fingerprint from a crime scene is to be connected to an individual.