Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)

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Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)

The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) is a computerized storage system for tens of millions of fingerprint images. The database picks out the most likely matches to the new print being fed into the system, narrowing the search parameters for investigators. Final analysis of the print and the retrieved images is done by AFIS Technicians to ensure accuracy of identification. The comparison takes the computer only minutes to do a job which would have taken weeks before computerization of the system.

Prior to the 1970s, trained officers analyzed inked fingerprints and various items were noted. Minutiae details, such as ridge endings, ridge dots, bifurcations, and enclosures would be coded and the fingerprint cards filed according to patterns (whorls, loops, arches) from the Henry classification system. This method meant that it could take weeks or months for a fingerprint to be processed, as the prints would have to be analyzed at a central fingerprint bureau.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an analog system combined manual coding with filing codes on computers. Trained staff would then check the current print against a short computer-generated list of hard-copy inked images. Still the process was laborious and only relieved when the AFIS database was released commercially to agencies in 1986. A barrage of private software vendors marketed their AFIS products, resulting in incompatible databases and a confused market. By 2005, a small number of companies had developed universal standard applications to bring together national databases for comprehensive libraries of prints, making the selection of software upon which to run the AFIS database easier for agencies.

Simon A. Cole, author of Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (2001) explains that the AFIS can work in three ways. Ten-prints (prints of all digits from one individual) lifted from a crime scene or a body can be checked against the database of catalogued tenprints; a single latent print can be checked against the ten-print catalogue; and a ten-print from a scene can be checked against single latent prints stored in the database. "Unsolved" fingerprints can be stored in the AFIS system and automatically checked against with each new entry.

Fingerprint identification has become more scientific with the use of computers and portable scanners (the no-ink solution to fingerprint collection) than prior to the 1970s. The AFIS is an effective system for identifying people and establishing the criminal history of offenders. However, automated identification methods are not foolproof, and it still takes at least two experienced pairs of eyes to positively match current fingerprints with stored images.

see also Fingerprint; Identification; Integrated automated fingerprint identification system; Latent fingerprint.