One of a Kind?

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

08.15.05 – More than 550 undergraduates have been fingerprinted on campus recently. The students are not guilty of any crimes; rather they’re participating in research to determine whether fingerprint identification is as reliable as popular science has suggested.

Rob Carpenter
Rob Carpenter

UCI undergraduate student researcher Robert Carpenter, working with mentor Simon Cole, assistant professor of criminology, law and society, is analyzing the results of fingerprint matches suggested by a computer identification program.

The research is one of 14 projects taking place under the auspices of the SURF-IT (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Information Technology) program, launched by Calit2 this year, in cooperation with UCI's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

SURF-IT pairs undergraduate students with faculty mentors to conduct research in a wide range of IT-related areas. Among the projects currently underway are investigations into nanoelectronic circuits, distributed data-reduction techniques, and the relationship between computer games and the fostering of morality.

Carpenter, whose work on the fingerprint research began two years ago, has collected approximately 5,200 rolled prints and 1,600 latent prints, and is using this database to test the computer program’s accuracy. “We’ve found that in about 28 percent of the cases, the computer selects a mismatch as the most likely choice for a fingerprint match,” he says. “And we’re using nice, clean prints, whereas in a criminal investigation, you might have latent prints that are not good quality.”

The research has far-ranging implications. “We’re seeing that mistakes are being made. Some people in the real world who were convicted on fingerprint evidence have later been freed by DNA evidence,” Carpenter said. “We’re finding that fingerprints are not as individual or unique as we’ve always thought.”

Carpenter, on the other hand, is rather unique. A retired police officer, he is a licensed private investigator with his own company, and the married father of an 8-month-old son and a 1-year-old daughter. He has completed independent research in the social ecology honors program, has been on the dean’s list, and was inducted into Tau Sigma national honor society; he also teaches weekend private investigation classes through Cal State Fullerton’s extended learning program.

“It’s a juggling act,” he admits. “It’s tricky, but I always wanted to continue my education.” After graduating next spring, he plans to earn a doctorate in criminology.

Cole, Carpenter’s mentor, praises his student. “Rob has been a great asset,” he says. “He has helped immensely (with the research).”