When Can You Use A Fingerprint to Identify Someone?

Patient Presentation

A newborn male was having his footprints taken in the newborn nursery. The intern asked, “I know that we do this, but is it ever used and how accurate is it?” “That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. I know they use the footprint because it is a larger surface and therefore would have more points to measure. Plus it’s a lot easier to do than to get a hand or fingerprint from a baby. But that is about all I know,” the attending replied. The resident added, “With all the increase in biometric data being done these days, I wonder how early it can be used. Retinal scans for example. It would probably be easier to do that than to get the handprint from a baby.”


Biometrics uses “biological characteristics or behavioral features to recognize an individual.”

Using biometric data requires acquisition of data of sufficient quantity and quality for recognition and comparison, and the biometric data needs to remain stable over time (i.e. – the person should be able to be recognized in the future using the data. Data acquisition and storage cost and size are also important variables. Privacy and security are also paramount considerations.

Biometrics use in pediatric patients has several applications including:

  • Newborn tracking -using biometrics for identifying a newborn and linking them to its mother to prevent newborn swapping in hospitals and maternity wards.
  • Health care – especially vaccination tracking. Many children in the world do not receive the necessary vaccines or they receive them at an inappropriate time or duplicate vaccines because an adequate documentation system is not available.
    There are non-governmental agencies using biometric data for vaccine registry and tracking.

  • Identifying missing children – biometrics could allow improved identification of missing children.
  • Government identification – biometric data to identify a person potentially over their lifespan for receiving appropriate governmental services.

The most common biometric techniques available include:

  • Fingerprint (or alternatively palm or footprints) (see below also)
    • One of the most used and preferred methods. Only 2% of the population cannot use fingerprints.
    • Can be harder to do in children because the space between the dermal ridges are small therefore even initial recognition can be difficult. As the child grows and the spacing increases, eventually the data may not be reliable in identifying the individual.
    • People who work with chemicals or wash their hands a lot can have problems with the scanning.
  • Finger vein
    • Similar to fingerprints but looks at the unique vein pattern
    • Pattern is stable in the adult population, has technical issues.
  • Facial recognition
    • Good because can be used for mass identification, doesn’t require cooperation and is contactless
  • Lip prints
    • Similar to facial recognition. The attributes of lips are unique and stable over time in adults.
    • Children’s faces change over time, lips are smaller and therefore have less data, has many technical issues.
  • Iris scanning
    • Very secure, contactless but have to hold still to get a good iris scan
    • The iris’s unique shape is stable by 10 months and is persistent throughout life. Iris scanning appears to be currently generally feasible from age 3-4 upwards.
  • Voice recognition
    • Easily used for many applications including speech-to-text for many computer applications today.
    • There are technical challenges with adult voices, and childrens’ voices change.

Learning Point

Fingerprints, and palm or footprints, are made by the distinct epidermal ridges of the skin and are also known as dermatoglyphs. They are formed in fetal life by 6 months gestation but the exact mechanism is not understood. It appears to be a combination of genetic and environmental effects such that even twins do not have the same fingerprints. The distinct patterns are persistent throughout life. Basic patterns include arches, loops, whorls or mixed but the patterns, number of ridges and locations make for an infinite amount of combinations and therefore no two patterns are the same.

Adermatoglyphia is the absence of dermatoglyphs and is caused by a SMARCAD1 gene mutation. There are no specific differences between males and females but men’s fingers are larger and therefore their fingerprints are larger.

People leave fingerprints on surfaces all the time. These are called latent prints and the latent print residue that is left behind contains oils, salts and sometimes DNA, but mainly latent prints contain water. Fingerprints could be altered because of damage or disfigurement, however that also makes the fingerprint more distinct and identifiable.

Questions for Further Discussion

1. If you needed to institute a biometric vaccine registry, what biometric data would you collect and what would some of the tradeoffs be?

2. What are some of the problems with voice recognition software in the adult population?

3. what are some of the privacy considerations for collecting and storing biometric data?

Related Cases

To Learn More

To view pediatric review articles on this topic from the past year check PubMed.

Evidence-based medicine information on this topic can be found at SearchingPediatrics.com and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Information prescriptions for patients can be found at MedlinePlus for this topic: Genetic Disorders

To view current news articles on this topic check Google News.

To view images related to this topic check Google Images.

To view videos related to this topic check YouTube Videos.

Fingerprints FAQ. http://www.madsci.org/FAQs/body/fingerprints.html. Accessed April 13, 2020.

OMIM Entry – #125590 – DERMATOGLYPHICS–FINGERPRINT PATTERN. https://www.omim.org/entry/125590. Accessed April 13, 2020.

UCSB Science Line. http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=2650. Accessed April 13, 2020.

Saini R, Rana N. Comparison of Various Biometric Methods. Int J Adv Sci Technol. 2014:2(1):24-30.

Jain AK, Arora SS, Best-Rowden L, Cao K, Sudhish PS, Bhatnagar A. Biometrics for Child Vaccination and Welfare: Persistence of Fingerprint Recognition for Infants and Toddlers. ArXiv150404651 Cs. April 2015. http://arxiv.org/abs/1504.04651. Accessed April 13, 2020.

Jenkinson H. Identified. JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(10):982. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.2923

Masyn S, Vuchelen A, Santermans E, et al. Overcoming the challenges of iris scanning to identify minors (1-4 years) in the real-world setting. BMC Res Notes. 2019;12(1):448. doi:10.1186/s13104-019-4485-8

Are fingerprints determined by genetics? Genetics Home Reference. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/traits/fingerprints. Accessed April 13, 2020.


Donna M. D’Alessandro, MD

Professor of Pediatrics, University of Iowa