Lawmakers often cite fingerprint background checks as the gold standard of criminal background screenings. We have seen this trend lately in the form of campaigns to pass legislation requiring fingerprint background checks for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. However, there is some misunderstanding and miscommunication about what shows up on a fingerprint background check.
Fingerprint background checks use fingerprint data to match a person to a criminal record. Employers that run these checks require candidates to provide their fingerprints at the time of application or after being selected as a job finalist. Usually, the candidate then needs to go to a local police department or somewhere similar to have their fingerprints electronically scanned by a special kind of kiosk. The fingerprints are then checked against a database, which returns matching criminal records if any are found.
Employers and lawmakers alike often assume fingerprint data ensures more thorough background checks. The thought is that fingerprint data can cut down on false positives in background checks, simply because no two people have the same fingerprints, while many people have the same name.
While fingerprints do provide a level of verification, there are weaknesses to these checks. The biggest drawback is fingerprints are not always filed with criminal records. The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), the go-to fingerprint database maintained by the FBI, includes 70 million records. The database includes people who have been fingerprinted in connection with criminal activity. Anyone who has legally purchased a gun or applied for a job where fingerprinting is mandated by law (a category that often includes education or healthcare among other industries) will also be in this system.
While 70 million looks like a big number on paper, it isn’t. In fact, the US OneSEARCH database maintained by backgroundchecks.com spans 550 million criminal records from all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC.
Another drawback is fingerprints are linked to arrest records, but those records don’t include details about the outcome of the case. Employers would have to do more research to determine whether an arrest led to a conviction. As a result, a fingerprint background check might pull arrests that didn’t lead to convictions. It might miss records for crimes where fingerprints weren’t taken. Or it might pull up records relevant to the candidate.
Because the system was designed for law enforcement and criminal investigations, not for employers, it sometimes fails to provide thorough findings. That’s not to say fingerprint background checks have no value, but they are not necessarily the gold standard in background checks, and unless required by your industry, they are not inherently better than name-based criminal screenings.