II: Removing Fingerprints, & Removing Fingerprinting Programs

Posted on 30 May 2011 by


Criminals seeking to remove their fingerprints to evade identification is nothing new; from John Dillinger to John Doe (the serial killer in the 1995 film Se7en), criminals have sought to subvert the longest-standing identification method used by authorities.

In 2007 and 2008, authorities around the world noticed a trend of criminals and illegal immigrants using a range of methods to obliterate their fingerprints.

The trend was featured in mainstream media outlets, and great roundups and histories were provided by both Jim Fisher (on his website) and by Interpol (in the form of a document by a then-intern at INTERPOL Secrétariat Général, Lyon, Kajal Singh). Then its popularity died down.

It’s back.

A 12 May article in La Opinion has been widely reprinted in English recently under the headline, Undocumented Immigrants Go Under the Knife to Erase Their Fingerprints (read the original Spanish-language article here), reads in part,

They resort to all available systems — acid, knives, sandpaper; some pay for expensive surgeries and they are procedures that are really very painful and in many cases are useless because with the current technology, sooner or later they are identified…”

This jibes with reports in a 19 February 2011 blogpost, African Immigrants and Refugees in Europe: A PAN and BAJI Investigation in which the fingerprint removal practices of African immigrants to Europe is broken down:

[There] are three ways commonly used to remove fingerprints. A refugee will burn his/her own fingerprints and palm prints with a lit cigarette. This painstaking and slow process can take several hours. It leaves a person with their fingers and hands in constant pain and unable to use their hands. Soon blisters appear and infection can spread.

Another method used by many refugees is to place their hands directly over a gas, charcoal or electric stove or immerse them in scalding water to remove their fingerprints and palm prints. This is no less painful than using a lit cigarette.

The third process requires a person to rub sandpaper against his/her skin. It may seem comparatively the less painful, but not so. It takes two or three days of rubbing fingers and palms with sand paper to entirely remove the top skin, leaving raw, blood exposed skin.

In February, the Department of Justice, US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts announced that Jose Elias Zaiter-Pou, 62, a doctor from the Dominican Republic was convicted and sentenced in federal court of conspiring to conceal illegal aliens from detection by altering their fingerprints.

Zaiter-Pou, a doctor by trade, was convicted of conspiring to surgically alter the fingerprints of illegal aliens in exchange for payment. Specifically, Zaiter-Pou arrived at a hotel in Woburn, where he met with a government informant and agreed to alter the informant’s fingerprints for $4,500, bringing surgical equipment, antibiotics and pain medication to the meeting. During the meeting, which was audio and video recorded by law enforcement, Zaiter-Pou described how he would surgically remove a portion of the fingertip, then suture the tip back together to make a new, unrecognizable fingerprint.

We think it’s worth reading and knowing about these methods, especially for those in agencies with jurisditions with heavy immigrant populations.

While we’re on the topic of fingerprinting, let’s not leave out the efforts to remove fingerprinting from the topic of immigration, and to question its efficacy at identification, at least as currently practiced (while giving a hat-tip to methods to step-up fingerprinting through technology).

Recently states began to heavily push against the “Secure Communities” initiative of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which relies on fingerprinting of suspected illegal aliens to aid in deportation. California is fighting SC; in fact, the LA Times says that, the “Homeland Security’s inspector general plans a review of the immigration enforcement program that purports to target ‘serious convicted felons’ but which some accuse of racial profiling.” On May 5, the New York Times reported that “several states” (it mentioned California, Illinois and Massachusetts) were resisting the federal Secure Communities Program. On that same day, Illionois governor Pat Quinn announced his intention to drop Secure Communities in the state (according to ICE, local jurisdictions and states cannot opt out of Secure Communities because it is an information sharing program).

The main arguments against the program have been the cost as well as the fact that it is unclear whether people innocent of the crimes sought by ICE (but guilty of other infractions) are ensnared in the same net. Without getting into an immigration debate, we’ll steer wide of that one, but instead look at one argument having some traction: do fingerprints provide as foolproof a method of identification as widely believed?

In Breaking up the forensics monopoly: eight ways to fix a broken system, a November, 2007 article in Reason Magazine, Roger Koppl, professor of economics and finance at Fairleigh Dickinson University argued that fingerprint identification itself was no great shakes, and certainly had an overblown reputation for accuracy. In part the article stated,

America’s forensics system, the part of our criminal justice system responsible for scientific examinations of crime-scene evidence like fingerprints and DNA, is rife with errors … The most recent comprehensive study of crime lab proficiency, published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 1995, analyzed the tests administered by the Forensic Sciences Foundation and Collaborative Testing Services as a part of the accreditation process. For many forensic disciplines, including the analysis of fibers, paints, glass, and body fluid mixtures, the rate of incorrect matches between recovered evidence and a reference sample exceeded 10 percent.

The best-performing group of disciplines, which included “finger and palm prints, metals, firearms, and footwear,” had error rates at or above 2 percent. The first item on that list is especially important: False fingerprint identification usually leads to a false conviction, because of the prestige of fingerprint evidence and its undeserved reputation for infallibility. With 238,135 requests for latent fingerprint comparisons in 2002 alone, a false positive error rate of 2 percent implies up to 4,800 false convictions or guilty pleas made in hopes of a lighter sentence each year in the U.S., 1,700 of them in felony cases.

Accuracy and reliability of forensic latent fingerprint decisions, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences in April, 2011, examines this subject.

Here, we report on the first large-scale study of the accuracy and reliability of latent print examiners’ decisions, in which 169 latent print examiners each compared approximately 100 pairs of latent and exemplar fingerprints from a pool of 744 pairs. The fingerprints were selected to include a range of attributes and quality encountered in forensic casework, and to be comparable to searches of an automated fingerprint identification system containing more than 58 million subjects. This study evaluated examiners on key decision points in the fingerprint examination process; procedures used operationally include additional safeguards designed to minimize errors. Five examiners made false positive errors for an overall false positive rate of 0.1%. Eighty-five percent of examiners made at least one false negative error for an overall false negative rate of 7.5%. Independent examination of the same comparisons by different participants (analogous to blind verification) was found to detect all false positive errors and the majority of false negative errors in this study. Examiners frequently differed on whether fingerprints were suitable for reaching a conclusion.