Expertise and quality of fingerprint analysis are key for reliable forensic results

The digitalisation of the various IT systems and research processes used to create expert services, standardisation and quality systems, the ever-increasing pressure to generate practical applications of research as well as the need to create international networks and exchange information are constantly increasing competence requirements and services in various expert fields.

These challenges are not unknown to the Forensic Laboratory of the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation and its fingerprint analysts. For years, the Forensic Laboratory has been developing its operations towards uniform, transparent procedures, criteria, processes and qualification requirements.

The goal of the doctoral dissertation of MA (Education) Virpi Mustonen is to provide a deeper understanding of the challenges of forensics involving education, fingerprint analysis and decision-making, documentation, quality, the creation of shared rules as well as the development of various work processes and research methods. At the same time, an open challenge faces the development of forensics and the officials who are responsible for it: can we stay abreast of this development to ensure a safer tomorrow?

Expertise in crime-scene fingerprint investigations

Finland does not have a degree programme in forensics and fingerprint analysis in the official education system. Instead, experts have largely been trained on the job by mentors. The situation is similar in many parts of the world. While some countries have university-level degree programmes in forensics, many train their forensic investigators through on-the-job mentoring.

In 2010, Mustonen created a new training programme for the Forensic Laboratory which includes a great deal of social learning methods for individuals, organisations and the community. The goal is to train adaptive experts whose theoretical and practical know-how and self-regulation skills are at the level required for the job. 

– In my dissertation, I monitor the development of two new trainees, Mustonen explains.

The results showed that the trainees had their own individual and professional manner of reflection, and that they gained the necessary professional qualifications.

Conclusions and interpretations of fingerprint analysis

Fingerprint analysis is an expert job requiring a high level of competence. While most of the work involved in analysing fingerprints from crime scenes is fairly routine, the challenging element is poor-quality prints which require adaptive expertise. 

– However, there are some discrepancies between the interpretations of analysis results made by different experts, so I chose to examine the interpretations of the challenging prints which resulted in conflicting conclusions.

The research showed how experts use limited knowledge to analyse poor-quality fingerprints.

Mustonen suggests alternative models for how conclusions from fingerprint analysis could follow a model similar to DNA profile frequency calculations. At least using the conclusion scales employed in comparative studies in other areas of forensics would be sensible.

Joint process development

In her research, Mustonen followed the practices of the fingerprint analysis community and the development of their work processes during the digital changeover. She organised development seminars for the fingerprint group of the Forensic Laboratory to encourage collegial learning and sharing of best practices, find new procedures, rules and criteria and to make work processes more transparent and efficient.  The results showed how fingerprint analysts generated shared knowledge and elevated their own expertise to a new level, recognised critical practices, and discovered shared solutions for investigations, processes and documentations to make results more uniform.

Crime increases the need to stay ahead

In Finland, the research results produced by the Forensic Laboratory are reliable and high-quality, but constant development is necessary. New research areas have joined the forensics “family” during the past few years alongside the “hard” biometric identifiers, traditionally fingerprints and DNA. Biometric identification methods, such as face and voice recognition and iris scanning, have become part of the digital toolkit of forensics, but digitalisation is generating completely new forensic areas. 

– The research field of forensics has expanded, and continues to add new areas, such as cybercrime prevention.

The borders between forensics and traditional investigation methods are beginning to blur. The future will show what kinds of challenges digital terrorism, financial crime or the various cloud-based services create for forensic research. Digital tools also enable the use of big data, while 4D technology, artificial intelligence and robotics are opening new possibilities for making the work more effective.

Virpi Mustonen will defend her doctoral dissertation, entitled Challenges of Expertise and Organizational Learning, during the Digital Transformation of Forensic Fingerprint Investigation on 20 January at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences. The public defence will be held at 10.15 in lecture hall 12 in the University’s Main Building (Fabianinkatu 33). The dissertation is also available in electronic format through the E-thesis services.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate, tel. 0295 486 415

Information about the doctoral candidate

Virpi Mustonen completed her upper-secondary education in her native Rovaniemi in the spring of 1984. She graduated with a Master of Arts (Education) from the University of Joensuu in 2009. Since 2010, Mustonen has been a doctoral student at the Centre for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences. 

Mustonen is currently head of HR development at the National Bureau of Investigation.