Black Box Study

Black Box Study Examines Court Admissibility of Fingerprints

Noblis partners with the FBI in policy-changing fingerprint study

In recent years fingerprint identification systems have increased in size and accuracy and the forensic use of fingerprints has become increasingly effective for criminal justice and for military, counter-terrorism, and intelligence uses. At the same time, the admissibility of fingerprints as evidence in court has been challenged in hundreds of legal cases, high-profile fingerprint errors have been recorded, and the entire discipline of forensic science has been criticized. Despite the fact that fingerprints have been used in forensics for over 100 years, the accuracy, reproducibility, and consensus of latent fingerprint examiners’ decisions had never been tested through a large-scale study. 

For over a decade, Noblis has been a primary trusted partner to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) biometric services. Our thought leadership, world-class research, and operational tools have earned Noblis a stellar reputation in the international forensic and biometric fingerprint community. That is why the FBI chose Noblis to work on its latent fingerprint examiner study.

Examining the Accuracy and Reliability of Latent Print Examiners' Decisions

Working with the FBI Laboratory, Noblis developed a large-scale black box study to examine the accuracy and reliability of latent print examiners’ decisions. In the study, 169 latent print examiners were asked to compare approximately 100 pairs of latent and exemplar fingerprints from a pool of 744 pairs. The fingerprints in the pool were selected based on a range of attributes and qualities frequently encountered in forensic casework, and were comparable to searches of an automated fingerprint identification system containing more than 58 million subjects.

The results of the black box study showed that latent examiner decisions had a false positive rate of 0.1 percent and a false negative rate of 7.5 percent. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, had a critical impact on fingerprint examiner testimony nationally and internationally and resulted in a policy change in the way FBI examiners testify in court. The study will also impact how forensic laboratories operate and it is expected to affect laboratory standard operating procedures for fingerprint evidence, examiner training, certification and competency testing, and quality assurance.

Noblis’ work with fingerprints has led to the development of international latent print standards, created significant improvements in interoperability among law enforcement agencies, changed the admissibility rules of latent fingerprints in courtrooms around the world, and helped to identify thousands of criminals and terrorists in the U.S. and in international war zones.


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