The FBI keeps its vast database of fingerprints in a Clarksburg, W. Va., facility, allowing examiners to conduct criminal checks from computer screens in under 30 minutes, the Chicago Tribune reports. It is a process that previously took weeks as staffers rummaged through 2,100 file cabinets stuffed with inked print cards. The same digital technology that has allowed the FBI to speed checks dramatically has created the risk of accusing people who are innocent. 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. “There’s a risk that not only would they exclude someone incorrectly–we have the potential to identify someone incorrectly,” said David Grieve, a fingerprint expert for the Illinois State Police.
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, most police agencies still use equipment with the lower resolution. FBI officials recognize the 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, an official at the Clarksburg facility. Ten years ago, only a few major police departments used digital fingerprinting. Today, more than 80 percent of the prints submitted to the FBI’s Clarksburg facility are digital.