Monday, December 21, 2009

Is this accurate?

Each of us have some specific knowledge of a particular area. Even if you're the cashier at a convenience store, you know certain things about cash registers, credit card acceptance, and the like that I don't know. I might read a cash register description without blinking, while you may be howling at the gross inaccuracy in the account.

Just to illustrate the idea, I'll take an example that parallels my small sphere of knowledge. This relates to a report of a crime in the Stonehaven community, in the Charlotte, North Carolina area.

(FTC DISCLOSURE: My employer provides biometric software, equipment, and services in many areas of the state of North Carolina.)

Be sure to read the account, which describes how someone caught some vandals in the act, and how he ended up getting in a scuffle with three of the vandals.

We'll pick up the story after the vandals fled the scene:

Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officers arrived at the school within about 10 minutes to take Lutes’s report of the incident, survey the graffiti and collect the discarded spray paint cans which were processed for fingerprint evidence. The recovered fingerprints will be processed through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for possible matches. If any of the vandals has been fingerprinted in relation to criminal activity in the past their identity will be discovered.

My howling over this one actually relates to a fairly common misunderstanding, even among professional journalists. Often when you read accounts of AFIS, they imply that there is only a single AFIS, and that the FBI runs it. Yes, the FBI does run an AFIS - the FBI's is called IAFIS - but each state has its own AFIS, and many localities have their own AFIS. And even if they don't have their own AFIS, localities often have an AFIS workstation that captures prints and submits them to some other AFIS system.

(Perhaps it's relevant to mention another misconception. Whenever you see a report stating that a locality bought "an AFIS" for $20,000, there is a chance that they may not have bought a full AFIS, but merely an AFIS workstation.)

Why is the distinction between IAFIS and other AFIS important? Because AFIS systems at different levels of government are used for different purposes. After September 11, 2001, the FBI's mission has been modified so that its primary concern is now prevention of terrorist acts. The FBI isn't going to go out of its way to capture the fingerprints of every graffiti vandal in the country.

But perhaps the state of North Carolina may do this. Here's an excerpt from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Latent Fingerprint Section web page:

The latent examiner can capture digital images of fingerprints that can be searched against those in a statewide system utilizing a database known as the AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). They also have the ability to utilize the International Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).

(Another howler: the "I" in "IAFIS" actually stands for "Integrated." But let's move on.)

Now I don't know off the top of my head whether the state of North Carolina retains fingerprints of graffiti vandals, or the level of access that is available for juvenile records. However, there is always the possibility that the people that vandalized Rama Rd. Elementary and attacked Brian Lutes may have been guilty of more serious crimes - perhaps even crimes that may, um, warrant inclusion in the national IAFIS database.

Enough about fingerprints already. That's my little bit of in-depth knowledge, and you have yours. But most media broadcasts (blogging, print media, television, radio, other) are designed for a general audience, and are sometimes reported by people who may not have an in depth knowledge of the subject at hand. Think about it - whatever bit of in-depth knowledge you have, there's probably someone who knows more about the topic than you do.

So how accurate is the information that we read, and how can we protect ourselves against inaccuracies?
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