I expect there will be more fingerprint issues

The lawyer in Oregon that was arrested by the FBI because they “identified” his fingerprints on materials related to the bombing of the train station in Spain is going to be getting $2M from the U.S. taxpayers:

Two years ago the FBI branded Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield a terror suspect, secretly searched his house and eavesdropped on his conversations with his family and co-workers.

On Wednesday, Justice Department officials agreed to pay Mayfield $2 million to settle one part of his lawsuit for his wrongful arrest in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people.

Mayfield, a former Army officer, also got a formal apology. And the settlement allows him to continue his legal challenge to the USA Patriot Act, which Mayfield charges violates the Fourth Amendment by permitting government searches without demonstrating probable cause that a crime has been committed.

“The United States acknowledges that the investigation and arrest were deeply upsetting to Mr. Mayfield, to Mrs. Mayfield and to their three young children,” said Tasia Scolinos, a Justice Department spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. “And the United States regrets that it mistakenly linked Mr. Mayfield to this terrorist attack.”

Mayfield believed he was singled out because of his Muslim faith. FBI agents, however, insisted that his arrest was based on a faulty fingerprint identification that linked him to the attack.

Either way, Mayfield’s arrest is one of the FBI’s most embarrassing episodes in its five-year campaign to detect terrorist cells inside the United States.

The case also cast doubt on the accuracy of the FBI’s troubled fingerprint-identification program and raised questions about sweeping anti-terror measures passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Mayfield, 40, was detained for two weeks after agents matched the print of his left index finger with one found on a bag of detonators connected to the Madrid attack.

What most people don’t know is that fingerprint identification is often as much an art as a science. Sure if you have excellent quality prints from the nice man carefully rolling your inked finger back and forth on the fingerprint card even a computer can match that to another fingerprint card carefully made some other time. But if they have a smeared fingerprint left from you gripping a textured hand railing, or just the tips of your fingers from typing on the keyboard, or if you soaked your fingers in bleach the night before it’s not clear whether you can get a match at all. And if you are elderly and do a lot of hand labor then the nice man may not even have usable fingerprints from your carefully inked and rolled fingers on the card.

But the U.S. legal system has a tremendous amount of case law built up that says a fingerprint match is positive identification. The problem is there aren’t good standards for what constitutes a “match”. How many little arches and swirls much be in agreement before it’s considered good enough that no one else could have left those fingerprints at the crime scene? Or how may discrepancies can exist before the defense can argue that it definitely wasn’t the suspect that left them? The courts have left it up to “experts” to decide. And the experts don’t agree. The “science” of fingerprints isn’t science. You can get two “experts” to look at identical data and reach opposite conclusions. And what of the ability to spoof fingerprints? It’s not that difficult. And you leave some pretty high quality fingerprints on those soda cans you recycle, the water glass at the restaurant, and restroom door at work.

Until the case above the FBI experts had a much lower threshold for an “identical match” than did the forensic experts in other countries. And I don’t think this issue has been settled yet. I expect there will be other cases where the “experts” want to “help” or have pressure put on them to claim matches when there shouldn’t be. Innocent people will be arrested, imprisoned, and perhaps sometimes even executed because of shaky fingerprint evidence.

A good part of the problem is that many people think of science as some sort of magic that can give black and white solutions to almost anything. In some cases it can but in others it’s simply not possible. But that’s beyond the scope of this post. So I’ll save that for later.