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Friday, September 11, 2020

The Rise of DNA and the Fall of Fingerprint Identification

      In 1993, when the O.J. Simpson trial began to turn "DNA fingerprinting" into a household term, the aura of infallibility surrounding fingerprinting stood in marked contrast to the reputation of DNA typing. Geneticists and lawyers were hotly contesting the reliability of genetic evidence. How had fingerprint identification been transformed from a subject of debate to something that everyone took for granted? How had fingerprint identification become a virtually incontestable form of truth?..

     At the turn of the twenty-first century, the relative positions of fingerprinting and DNA seem to have reversed. DNA typing has become much more widely trusted than it was a few short years ago. Meanwhile, longstanding fissures in the reliability of fingerprint identification has become cracks. The identities bestowed upon us by expert reading of our fingerprint patterns, it turns out, are "suspect" in yet another way. It may well be that we are approaching the end of the century-long period in which our fingerprint patterns told the state who we were and even defined our individuality, our very personhood. And yet, as DNA technology promises to create a whole new set of biologically defined, seemingly unquestionable identities for all of us, we would do well to reflect on the ways in which previous methods of criminal identification have been suspect.

Simon Cole, Suspect Identities, 2001. Simon Cole is a world renown fingerprint expert.

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