FBI checking database to make sure it is matching fugitives' fingerprints
By MARK SHERMAN
WASHINGTON- The FBI is checking its computer database containing the fingerprints of roughly 45 million people to make sure it's working properly, following the bureau's admission that it missed a fingerprint match for a man who authorities say later killed four women.
"It doesn't make every match. It never has and it never will," said FBI spokesman Joe Parris. "Obviously, the fact that the system didn't pick up this match had tragic consequences. We don't deny that."
Still, the incident is under review and the FBI is checking the system with a focus on fugitives, he said.
"Once people are entered into the system as fugitives, we're taking the prints and running them back through the system to ensure that the system will make the match," Parris said.
FBI officials have called the system, in use since 1999, a big improvement over manual identification, which took 15 days or more and was less accurate. The current system usually produces results in two hours.
Even when functioning well, the fingerprint system is 95 percent to 98 percent accurate as it pores over 50,000 prints a day, Parris said. The system contains 450 million individual prints, which equates to roughly 45 million people.
That accuracy rate would translate into many mistakes each day, given the high volume of fingerprint searches, said Simon Cole, a criminology professor at University of California at Irvine who specializes in fingerprints.
"They're right that there's no reason to expect it would be 100 percent accurate. There are probably a lot of false negatives out there. But the public and officials aren't going to find out unless somebody goes out and kills someone," Cole said.
The Jones case is the second major fingerprint embarrassment for the FBI in as many years. Last year, three senior FBI fingerprint experts mistakenly declared that a print found on a shopping bag near the scene of train bombings in Madrid belonged to Portland lawyer Brandon Mayfield. The FBI later apologized to Mayfield, who is suing the government.
Though separated by just a few months, the two incidents are unrelated, Parris said. "This is not a botched fingerprint situation, as some have called it," he said.
The biggest difference in the two cases is that after the computer spit out potential matches in the Mayfield case, human beings erred when they made a positive identification. In the Jones case, the computer never made the initial connection.
Cole said FBI computer technicians could adjust the computer to churn out more potential matches in more cases. "But that will cost law enforcement time and give you more false positives," he said.
If the bigger worry is avoiding a repeat of the Mayfield case, the computer could be set to be more discriminating, Cole said. "But then you're going to miss more people," he said.
On the Net:
FBI fingerprint database: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cjisd/iafis.htm
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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