Fingerprint Basics

Fingerprints are one of those bizarre twists of nature. Human beings happen to have built-in, easily accessible identity cards. You have a unique design, which represents you alone, literally at your fingertips. How did this happen?

People have tiny ridges of skin on their fingers because this particular adaptation was extremely advantageous to the ancestors of the human species. The pattern of ridges and "valleys" on fingers make it easier for the hands to grip things, in the same way a rubber tread pattern helps a tire grip the road.

The other function of fingerprints is a total coincidence. Like everything in the human body, these ridges form through a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The genetic code in DNA gives general orders on the way skin should form in a developing fetus, but the specific way it forms is a result of random events. The exact position of the fetus in the womb at a particular moment and the exact composition and density of surrounding amniotic fluid decides how every individual ridge will form.

So, in addition to the countless things that go into deciding your genetic make-up in the first place, there are innumerable environmental factors influencing the formation of the fingers. Just like the weather conditions that form clouds or the coastline of a beach, the entire development process is so chaotic that, in the entire course of human history, there is virtually no chance of the same exact pattern forming twice.

Consequently, fingerprints are a unique marker for a person, even an identical twin. And while two prints may look basically the same at a glance, a trained investigator or an advanced piece of software can pick out clear, defined differences.

This is the basic idea of fingerprint analysis, in both crime investigation and security. A fingerprint scanner's job is to take the place of a human analyst by collecting a print sample and comparing it to other samples on record. In the next few sections, we'll find out how scanners do this.