Fingerprints & nanotechnology

By Anna Sandiford 07/06/2011

Fingerprints and forensic science go back a long way – they are probably the most traditional forensic science tool that people will mention if you ask them about solving crimes.  Having said that, there have been some monumental stuff-ups when it comes to fingerprint ID; the Madrid bomb suspect misidentification springs to mind when a lawyer in the USA was wrongly detained because of use of a poor quality image for comparative purposes.

Ensuring that fingerprints are used properly and to best effect is one of the aims of the USA’s National Academy of Science’s review of forensic science, which slated a lot of forensic science being presented in court, demanded that standards be raised and science of all kinds be more rigorously tested before being used in court. The downside of this was that public faith in the justice system, and particularly science, was rattled. The upside is that there has been a lot of research over the last two years to regain that loss of faith.

Whether or not the recent Australian breakthrough on recovering old fingerprints has come about as the result of this renewed scientific investigation into fingerprints is not something to which I know the answer but if the technology works then it opens the door to more cold cases being reviewed. The University of Technology in Sydney has used nanotechnology to “detect dry and weak fingerprints, which are not revealed by traditional techniques. Nanotechnology reveals much sharper detail of amino acid traces from old fingerprints than existing methods. [The researchers’] aim is to detect fingerprints of any age on any surface. Specimens that previously went unseen are now being revealed using new chemical treatments that target amino acids.”

It will be interesting to see how well it works and whether this approach is adopted here in NZ. I guess it will come down to how easy it is to use and how much it costs to implement.

Thanks to Jennifer Nickel for drawing this to my attention.