Digitized prints can point finger at innocent

Discussion in 'Photoshop Tutorials' started by MrPepper11, Jan 3, 2005.

  1. MrPepper11

    MrPepper11 Guest

    Chicago Tribune
    January 3, 2005

    Digitized prints can point finger at innocent
    Handling, quality of image are risks
    By Flynn McRoberts and Steve Mills
    Tribune staff reporters

    CLARKSBURG, W.Va. -- Deep inside a sprawling complex tucked in the
    hills of this Appalachian town, a room full of supercomputers attempts
    to sift America's guilty from its innocent.

    This is where the FBI keeps its vast database of fingerprints, allowing
    examiners to conduct criminal checks from computer screens in less than
    30 minutes--something that previously took them weeks as they rummaged
    through 2,100 file cabinets stuffed with inked print cards.

    But the same digital technology that has allowed the FBI to speed such
    checks so dramatically over the last few years has created the risk of
    accusing people who are innocent, the Tribune has found.

    Across the country, police departments and crime labs are submitting
    fingerprints for comparisons and for entry into databases, using
    digital images that may be missing crucial details or may have been
    manipulated without the FBI knowing it.

    Not unlike a picture from a typical digital camera, a digital
    fingerprint provides less complete detail than a traditional
    photographic image. That matters little with pictures from the family
    vacation. But when the digital image is of a fingerprint, the lack of
    precision raises the specter of false identifications in criminal

    "There's a risk that not only would they exclude someone
    incorrectly--we have the potential to identify someone incorrectly,"
    said David Grieve, a prominent fingerprint expert who is the latent
    prints training coordinator for the Illinois State Police crime lab

    An FBI-sponsored group of fingerprint examiners was concerned enough
    about the quality of digital images that in 2001 it recommended
    doubling their resolution. Three years later, though, the vast majority
    of police agencies still use equipment with the lower resolution.

    Equally troublesome, the most commonly used image-enhancement software,
    Adobe Photoshop, leaves no record of some of the changes police
    technicians can perform as they clean up fingerprint images to make
    them easier to compare.

    This seemingly esoteric issue is crucial because it raises questions
    about a bulwark of the criminal justice system: chain of custody. If
    authorities cannot prove that a fingerprint is an accurate
    representation of the original and show exactly how it was handled, its
    validity can be questioned.

    FBI officials recognize the resolution problem but say it leads to
    overlooking guilty people, not falsely accusing the innocent.

    "The risk that we're hearing is that we miss people--because the
    resolution isn't enough--not that we're identifying people
    incorrectly," said Jerry Pender, deputy assistant director at the FBI's
    Clarksburg facility.

    Potential for error rising

    Such confidence is unwarranted, according to digital-imaging
    specialists and some leading fingerprint experts. And they say the
    potential for mistakes is growing inexorably as police departments
    around the nation switch from old inked cards to digitized computer

    To do so, technicians scan an inked card into a computer, which
    converts it into a pattern of 0s and 1s that digitally represent the
    image, similar to how a fax machine works. And, like a fax machine, the
    process of digitizing the fingerprint loses considerable amounts of

    "It gives examiners the misleading impression that they're getting a
    better-quality image to examine," said Michael Cherry, an imaging
    expert who is on the evidentiary committee of the Association for
    Information and Image Management, a business technology trade group.
    "These images actually can eliminate fingerprint characteristics that
    might exclude a suspect."

    Measuring the number of cases in which a digital image may have wrongly
    linked a suspect to a crime scene is difficult. The technology is so
    new that many defense attorneys do not know to ask if the fingerprint
    image entered into evidence has been digitized.

    "I think it's a very real problem, but it's under the [radar] still,"
    said Mary Defusco, director of training at the Defender Association of
    Philadelphia, a non-profit group that represents indigent defendants.
    "We have to get up to speed on it."

    One of the nation's first successful challenges to the use of digital
    fingerprinting in the courtroom came in 2003 in Broward County, Fla.

    The only physical evidence linking Victor Reyes to the murder of Henry
    Guzman was a partial palm print--an intriguing trace of evidence found
    on duct tape used to wrap the body in a peach-colored comforter.

    A forensic analyst with the Broward County Sheriff's Office used a
    software program known as MoreHits along with Adobe Photoshop to darken
    certain areas and lighten others--a process called "dodge and burn,"
    which has long been used in traditional photography.

    Reyes' attorney, Barbara Heyer, argued that such digital enhancements
    were inappropriate manipulations of the evidence. "It just hasn't
    gotten to the point of reliability," Heyer said.

    Jurors acquitted Reyes, largely because of sloppy handling of the
    evidence by police. But they also were troubled by the digital
    fingerprinting technology used in the case. The jury foreman, Richard
    Morris, who writes computer-imaging software for a living, said in a
    recent interview that he and his fellow jurors had significant concerns
    about it.

    No record of image changes

    "The makers of the [Adobe] software dropped the ball in not providing a
    digital record of every action applied to the image," Morris said. He
    said he would like to see lab analysts or police personnel use software
    that automatically would log any changes so other examiners could
    determine later whether the digital print had been altered

    Ten years ago, only a handful of major police departments used digital
    fingerprinting. Today, more than 80 percent of the prints submitted to
    the FBI's Clarksburg facility are digital.

    Along with the digital technology has come inexpensive software that
    allows personnel at many police stations to enhance the prints at their
    desks. One of the most widely used digital-print software programs,
    MoreHits, claims about 150 clients among local, state, federal and
    foreign law-enforcement agencies.

    The creators of these explosively popular tools also recognize the
    potential problems.

    "It's like a hammer. It's not evil unless someone who is evil picks it
    up and uses it," said Erik Berg, a forensic expert with the Police
    Department in Tacoma, Wash., who developed MoreHits.

    Human element crucial

    Defenders of the technology contend that concerns about it are
    overstated because computers only spit out a list of potential matches;
    typically, human fingerprint examiners at the FBI's lab and at state
    crime labs make the final matches introduced in court.

    "The benefits to law enforcement with digital fingerprints are
    incalculable in terms of speed of identification and exoneration of the
    innocent," said Joseph Bonino, former chairman of the FBI's advisory
    policy board for the Criminal Justice Information Services division in
    Clarksburg. "They provide a high degree of accuracy, assuming your
    human examiners are properly trained."

    Trust in that safeguard took a major hit last spring when the FBI
    falsely linked an Oregon lawyer, Brandon Mayfield, to terrorist
    bombings at Madrid train stations.

    When Spanish authorities connected the Madrid print to an Algerian man,
    the FBI had to admit it erred.

    The bureau initially blamed the quality of a digital fingerprint image
    forwarded from the Spanish National Police. An international panel of
    experts later concluded that the digital image was fine; instead, the
    panel found, several veteran FBI examiners had missed "easily observed"
    details that excluded Mayfield.

    Asked last month about the questions involving digital prints, the FBI
    issued a statement saying it would not comment further until eight
    teams of forensic scientists--appointed after the Mayfield case
    unraveled--finish "methodically inspecting every aspect of the latent
    fingerprint process, which includes the examination of digital images."

    The sleek computer equipment inside the bureau's facility in Clarksburg
    cannot negate this disturbing fact: The FBI does not know if a police
    agency has altered any of the thousands of new fingerprint images added
    every day to its database, which now has 48 million sets of prints.

    As long as the submissions meet FBI standards on resolution, size and
    information about the subject, "we wouldn't have any concerns about the
    quality of images coming into IAFIS," said Steve Fischer, spokesman for
    the Clarksburg facility, referring to the FBI's Integrated Automated
    Fingerprint Identification System.

    Improprieties possible

    But Fischer acknowledged that those standards are not a safeguard
    against improper manipulation of the images.

    "If they were doing something out there," he said, "we wouldn't know
    about it."

    The broader concern, though, remains the quality of the digital images
    themselves. An FBI-sponsored scientific working group of fingerprint
    experts cited concerns about the quality of digital images in 2001,
    when it recommended doubling their resolution, from 500 pixels per inch
    to 1,000.

    But that is only a guideline, and most police departments haven't
    invested in newer equipment that would upgrade the digital images.

    "The quality of the detail . . . in the [lower-resolution] digital
    image is not sufficient to support a lot of what fingerprint
    comparisons rely on," said Alan McRoberts, chairman of the working
    group and editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification.

    The roots of using digital images for crime-solving date to the early
    1970s, when San Diego police brought a palm print image to the Jet
    Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in the hope that scientists
    could enhance it.

    Police had found a bloody palm print on a bedsheet at a murder scene,
    but the weave of the sheet obscured the print's detail. The lab's
    scientists managed to separate the print from the bedsheet's weave
    using a process similar to one employed to enhance photographs taken of
    the moon and planets.

    Since then, the drop in prices for such technology has made it widely
    available to law enforcement, but critics question whether all police
    staffers using it fully understand its limitations.

    One solution to the problem is simple, according to imaging experts:
    Have defense attorneys ask the right questions.

    Berg, the developer of the MoreHits software, outlined them: "If this
    is a digital image, has it been enhanced or is this the original
    capture with no changes to it? If it's been enhanced, I want you to
    show me what you did and tell me what your training is. And did you go
    out of your area of expertise to do this?"

    If those questions aren't asked, Berg noted, a false identification
    might not be caught.

    MrPepper11, Jan 3, 2005
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  2. MrPepper11

    scooter34 Guest

    This is an interesting article, and it raises some interesting
    questions, but I am troubled by one thing - two cases cited as
    worrisome both involved palm prints as opposed to fingerprints. Palms
    don't have the same characteristics as fingerprints - I understood that
    they were not considered as reliable. In fact, here in Michigan we
    don't currently electronically archive palms, because in tight budget
    times, we have to watch where we spend our bucks.

    In the case of the Seattle lawyer, I am inferring that the Spanish
    authorities transmitted a latent to the FBI, who then ran it against
    the federal database. Latents can be incomplete, so I believe that the
    examiner gets a list a potential matches, and then must visually
    compare the lift to the tenprint card. This points to human error as
    opposed to machine error.

    Electronic fingerprinting has a lot of potential errors, but it's
    really a training issue. I've seen some amazing arrests based on the
    technology, and it allows local LE to know who they have in custody in
    15 minutes or less. This helps make us all safer. It seems to me that
    before a court case, a human should be looking at a quality set of
    prints and comparing them to the latent, which is really what this
    article is talking about.

    Thanks for posting.

    scooter34, Jan 3, 2005
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  3. You have an interesting - thought provoking response to the article -
    point of view and raise valid questions. It would seem in the best of
    all investigatory worlds, prints or sets of prints, palm, fingers, or
    combinations, are but one part of the puzzle to be solved by the
    "who-dunits" guys and gals. Training and qualifications along with
    strict oversight is essential in the process. And the integrity of
    gathered information and evidence must be paramount. It's what all
    good cops strive for as professional law enforcement members.
    Clayton Villanes, Jan 3, 2005
  4. MrPepper11

    Hunter Guest

    I agree totally. I am for the use of digitized fingerprint archieves
    for the speed of retrival and wide disemination of such. But yes, when
    it comes time for an arrest the original latent and an nice old
    fashsion ink and card print should be compared manually. Also, have an
    untamperable log system in the software of a police issue Adobe
    Photoshop program to log any changes or enhancements of the image. Both
    of these suggestions should be mandatory and should reduce the chances
    of any mistakes; or deliberate shananigans.

    Hunter, Jan 5, 2005
  5. MrPepper11

    scooter34 Guest

    Actually, the printout of a Live Scanned tenprint card can be of better
    quality than a traditional rolled ink card, because when the operator
    botches a print, he/she can delete just that print and not lose the
    others, where the ink card requires a complete do-over. Prints come in
    electronically categorized as A, B, or C. C's are rejected, and the
    agency is required to reprint. Each month, we generate a list of
    agencies with poor quality prints and contact them. Too many months on
    the list, and you're required to retrain.

    Although I think the article raises some valid concerns, I think in the
    end it's much ado about nothing. The technology offered by Live Scan
    is a huge improvement over the old rolled card and manual review
    system. Defense attorneys need to be aware of the issues, though, as
    do examiners, who must carefully document the steps they take in latent

    Fun dialogue, Hunter - this has hit on a topic that fascinates me!
    scooter34, Jan 5, 2005
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