White Box Study (2014)

Measuring What Latent Fingerprint Examiners Consider Sufficient Information for Individualization Determinations

Latent print examiners use their expertise to determine whether the information present in a comparison of two fingerprints (or palmprints) is sufficient to conclude that the prints were from the same source (individualization). When fingerprint evidence is presented in court, it is the examiner’s determination—not an objective metric—that is presented. This study was designed to ascertain the factors that explain examiners’ determinations of sufficiency for individualization. Volunteer latent print examiners (n = 170) were each assigned 22 pairs of latent and exemplar prints for examination, and annotated features, correspondence of features, and clarity. The 320 image pairs were selected specifically to control clarity and quantity of features. The predominant factor differentiating annotations associated with individualization and inconclusive determinations is the count of corresponding minutiae; other factors such as clarity provided minimal additional discriminative value. Examiners’ counts of corresponding minutiae were strongly associated with their own determinations; however, due to substantial variation of both annotations and determinations among examiners, one examiner’s annotation and determination on a given comparison is a relatively weak predictor of whether another examiner would individualize. The extensive variability in annotations also means that we must treat any individual examiner’s minutia counts as interpretations of the (unknowable) information content of the prints: saying “the prints had N corresponding minutiae marked” is not the same as “the prints had N corresponding minutiae.” More consistency in annotations, which could be achieved through standardization and training, should lead to process improvements and provide greater transparency in casework.