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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Can fingerprints wear away?
The Magazine answers...

People could apparently be misidentified by hi-tech scanners developed for national ID cards because their fingerprints have been worn away. Could this really happen?

Manual work has never been good for the hands, but now it seems it could get a person in trouble with authorities.

Labourers and builders could find their fingerprints are not recognised by new high-tech equipment, an internal report for the government has reportedly warned.

They are not alone - typists, pianists, violinists and guitarists also face inaccurate readings.

The problem is that fingerprints can be severely worn down, particularly among people who work with abrasive materials.

Skin grafts

"The ridges that make up fingerprints are like a ploughed field," says fingerprint expert Raymond Broadstock.

"Work such as labouring and typing wears down those ridges and affects the smoothness of the skin. It can make fingerprints very hard to read. Certain vitamin deficiencies can also do the same."

The damage is not permanent as the skin rejuvenates within days. But for those who work in such professions there is little chance for their fingers to get a long enough rest for the ridges to rebuild - except on holiday.

"Prisoners have been known to rub their hands against the rough walls of prison cells to try and wear away the ridges," says Mr Broadstock. "They are just placed in cells with smooth walls for a few day until the skin rejuvenates itself."

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Government's trials are said to have suggested that worn away fingerprints - along with problems with face and iris scans - could identify one in 1,000 people as someone else.

One possible way round the problem would be to develop machines that also scan palms, as they have the same unique ridges, says Mr Broadstock.

"One criminal in the US obliterated his fingerprints by taking skin from other parts of his body and grafting it onto his fingertips. It worked but he still got caught because he had forgotten about his palms. He was surprised to say the least."

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