Fingerprints, FBI, Patriot Act, oh my!

Thursday 04 January 2007 at 00:04

Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon Lawyer, was arrested by the FBI in May 2004 and jailed for eleven(ish)[1] days as a material witness to the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, Spain. He was arrested because his fingerprints closely matched those found among evidence connected with the bombing. Had the case proceeded differently Mayfield could have been wrongly executed under Oregon law because his fingerprints were similar to those of a terrorist. Thankfully, that's not how it worked out.

I happily celebrate that the judicial branch of government corrected a mistake on the part of the executive branch. Mr. Mayfield was released, the FBI apologised, and a two-million dollar settlement was reached.

The case must also caution us against widespread adoption of biometric technology. Moreover we must remain vigilant in holding the government to account for its actions and guard against increasing the powers of government.

Annotated readings

Wikipedia - Brandon Mayfield I like Wikipedia's piece, especially for briefly clarifying his conversion to Islam. Without some context, a fearful FBI agent might suspect Mayfield for anti-American motives in his conversion to Islam. On the contrary, it's a romantic story, briefly told. Boy meets girl on a blind date. They fall in love and get married. He converts to her faith. (She's the daughter of his professor, and Egyptian.) I added a bunch of links to the article including some I annotate here.

Washington Post: The Achilles' Heel of Fingerprints Still a little too much use of fear in here, but this article seems especially relevant. Really worth reading in its entirety, but here's the bits most directly of interest to me:

Fingerprinting, unlike DNA evidence, currently lacks any valid statistical foundation. This is gravely troubling. Even if we assume the unproven hypothesis that each fingerprint is unique when examined at a certain level of detail, the important question is how often two people might have fingerprints sufficiently similar that a competent examiner could believe they came from the same person. This problem is accentuated when analyzing a partial print, as those recovered from crime scenes frequently are. How often might one part of someone's fingerprint strongly resemble part of someone else's print? No good data on this question exist.

The growing size of computer fingerprint databases makes this issue still more acute. As a database grows in size, the probability that a number of people will have strikingly similar prints also grows. Instead of ignoring the issue, forensic scientists need to investigate the frequencies of different ridge characteristics and develop difficult proficiency tests that examine the capability of fingerprint experts to accurately differentiate between superficially similar prints.

The FBI called the resemblance between Mayfield and Daoud's prints "remarkable." What is truly remarkable is that we simply do not know how often different people's prints may significantly resemble one another, or how good examiners are at distinguishing between such prints. DNA profiling provides what is called a "random match probability" : the odds that the DNA of someone picked at random would match the profile in question. With fingerprinting, we entirely lack the information to provide an equivalent statistic. Yet without this knowledge we cannot accurately evaluate the evidentiary value of a supposed fingerprint match.

Associated Press care of MSNBC: FBI apologizes to lawyer held in Madrid bombings This article is about Mayfield's release from jail. Like many of these news articles, there's a strong emphasis on Mayfield's faith, but I especially like the closing quote:

"The climate of fear of terror makes this a cautionary tale about the way in which that fear can ensnare an innocent person in the type of abuse to which Mr. Mayfield was subjected," [Steve Wax, Mayfield's public defender]

FBI's May 24, 2004 Statement on Brandon Mayfield Case Mayfield's release in the FBI's own words.

US District Court - Oregon: re Brandon Mayfield Mayfield's case in the US District Court's own words.

Jackson Hole News & Guide: Spence says $2M settlement underscores loss of freedom Spence represented Mayfield in the suit against the FBI. Judging by the quotes in this article, Spence is really paranoid about increasing government power. I cringed at the accusations of growing fascism and religious bigotry. Even so, I found myself agreeing with him once I'd mentally watered down his accusations to match my own level of anti-government cynicism. :-) I mainly object to his glaring use of fear to make his point. Increasing fear only strengthens the call for more draconian laws, investigation and enforcement.

Washington Post: U.S. Settles Suit Filed by Ore. Lawyer More fear, but an interesting read on a couple levels. It's definitely slanted strongly against the FBI. I see various places where particularly strong words are chosen which highlight grievances against the FBI. Probably worth a grain of salt. That said, the FBI definitely screwed up in this case and the traditional role of newspapers is to challenge the government to keep their powers in check. That's a role that has been long neglected and despite the slantedness, I'm happy to see journalists taking up this responsibility anew. Content-wise, there's interesting stuff in here about the FBI's investigation and about powers granted by the Patriot Act. I'm also happy to see efforts to formally challenge the Patriot Act and this article while slamming the FBI is definitely also taking aim at the Patriot Act.

It seems like I've read variations on the following quote in several places:

Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos issued a statement ... that investigators "did not misuse any provisions of the USA Patriot Act."

That's exactly the point. If you ask the Patriot Act, the FBI's investigation was an appropriate use of government power. If you ask me, (and the US District Court in Oregon), the FBI's investigation and arrest was an abuse of power. How about we reconsider the powers granted by the Patriot Act in light of this event, hmmmm?

CNN: Lawyer wrongly arrested in bombings: 'We lived in 1984' Yet more fear. Interesting to read it in light of the Washington Post piece, just so you can get a flavor of differences in slant, or maybe differences in technique. This article also takes aim at the FBI and the Patriot Act, but this one is a lot less aggressive in its choice of words, while nevertheless being aggressive in the choice of quotes to include in the article. Same comments apply: grain of salt in order, though the press is right to take the FBI to task on this one. There's also a link to a video of Mayfield which I wasn't able to watch. Might be interesting.

New York Times: U.S. Will Pay $2 Million to Lawyer Wrongly Jailed Another take on the same fears. But there's another quote in here to which I will respond. Another defense of the Patriot Act...

Although the F.B.I. has acknowledged serious missteps in the case, an investigation by the Justice Department inspector general released this year concluded that the government did not misuse its expanded counterterrorism powers under the Patriot Act and that Mr. Mayfield's Muslim faith was not the reason he was initially investigated.

I am not at all comforted by the Justice Department inspector general. The Justice Department has direct interest in the expanded powers granted by the Patriot Act. The reason we have checks and balances in this country is because we have a deep rooted belief that power corrupts -- we therefore insist there be checks against government power. I'll be somewhat happier when the courts start weighing in on the Patriot Act, though that is still the government checking up on the government.

[1] The eleven days figure is hard to confirm. Wikipedia says two weeks as do several of the above reports. One of the Washington Post articles says "a few days" and the Spence article says "around eleven". Take your pick.