Limitations of Fingerprint Background Checks

Fingerprint background checks may be required for certain positions within the federal government, state agencies, or regulated industries. Learn the limitations of fingerprint background screenings and find out why a more complete criminal background check may help better protect your business. 


Protecting employees and customers, enhancing the quality of hires, and safeguarding the company’s reputation are the primary reasons employers conduct background checks, according to a survey by the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA). While 96% of employers conduct some type of background screening as part of the hiring process, criminal background checks are the most common type, used by more than two-thirds of organizations. 

As part of their criminal background screening, about one-third of companies include a fingerprint background check for some or all job candidates, the PBSA survey reports. But fingerprint background checks are not the gold standard. Due to their limitations, employers should consider using these checks in combination with other sources of criminal records. 

What Is a Fingerprint Background Check?

A fingerprint background check uses a candidate’s fingerprints, in addition to other personal information such as their name and date of birth (DOB), to locate criminal history. Typically, fingerprint-based record checks involve searching the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a nationwide computer database of fingerprints. Fingerprints in the IAFIS may have been collected in relation to an arrest. They may also have been collected for reasons unrelated to criminal law enforcement, such as when a person is naturalized as a citizen, serves in the military, or works for the federal government. 

In addition to the IAFIS, there are hundreds of smaller Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) databases on the state, city, and county level. These databases may be searched instead of, or in addition to, the FBI system as part of a fingerprint background check. 

Employers can also request an Identity History Summary Check (IdHSC) if authorized by state statute. Generally this request must be submitted to the applicable State Identification Bureau

Individuals can request their personal IdHSC of records from IAFIS, but it cannot be used for employment purposes. Instead, individuals can use the information to review and, if necessary, correct their IAFIS records. 

Depending on federal, state, and local laws, as well as your industry’s regulations, you may need to conduct fingerprint background checks when hiring for:

  • Federal, state, or local government employment
  • Jobs or volunteer positions at schools and daycare centers
  • Jobs in long-term care, senior centers, or other positions regulated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)   
  • Jobs in law enforcement, fire departments, or airports 

For example, Florida requires a fingerprint-based background check for state agencies and regulated industries.

Fingerprint background checks may also be necessary for professional licensing. For instance, Texas requires engineers, doctors, realtors, attorneys, stockbrokers, and architects to undergo a fingerprint background screening. 

The advantage of a fingerprint screening: You can be certain all the records associated with a given set of prints belong to the individual in question. The problem? The results may be incomplete, outdated, or inaccurate. 

Limitations of Fingerprint-Based Background Checks

While fingerprint-based background checks may be necessary in some situations, the PBSA advises against relying on them alone when searching an applicant’s criminal history. The shortcomings of IAFIS fingerprints checks include: 

Inconsistent Data Transmission

A National Science and Technology Council report found major issues with records-sharing among state, local, and federal AFIS systems, including the IAFIS. Relaying criminal record data from the local level to the FBI requires a concerted effort between courts, prosecutors, state agencies, and the FBI. This process isn’t uniform or regulated, so one jurisdiction might report complete and timely data, but other jurisdictions might not. Often, even AFIS systems within a single state don’t work well together, so data may be siloed in separate databases. 

Incomplete Records

Not all fingerprints collected by state and local AFIS systems are transmitted to the IAFIS. A 2020 study funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that states only sent about one-third of final dispositions in criminal cases to the IAFIS. In addition, many states choose not to send the FBI disposition information on second or subsequent arrests. Without this information, IAFIS records could provide a misleading picture of a job candidate, especially if the arrest didn’t lead to a conviction. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance recommends employers restrict the use of arrest records when making employment decisions. An inaccurate, outdated, or incomplete screening report could lead to disparate impact discrimination, putting your organization at risk for legal liability. 

Poor Data Quality

The IAFIS houses millions of records, but that doesn’t ensure their quality.  Fingerprint checks of the system simply return all the information that matches the applicant’s fingerprint, with no guarantee of accuracy. Relying on incomplete or inaccurate data when making hiring decisions could create legal risk for employers.  

Disparate Impact on People of Color

Because people of color are disproportionately likely to be arrested, fingerprint background checks that return incomplete or inaccurate information can have a disparate impact on them. Taking adverse action based on this information may lead to unintentional discrimination against groups protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 

Using a CRA for More Comprehensive Criminal History

Partnering with a consumer reporting agency (CRA) for your employment background checks can provide a more complete, accurate criminal history of job candidates. Why are private background companies a better solution?

Government recommendation. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommend that “other solutions besides relying exclusively on the FBI should be explored, such as relying more directly on private sector resources,” citing significant gaps in the IAFIS data. Despite efforts to streamline data sharing and remedy these problems, progress has been slow. Using a CRA ensures timely and consistent data for your screening reports. 

Federal regulation. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires CRAs to use reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy in background screening results. Failure to do so can lead to private lawsuits as well as fines by the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Using an FCRA-compliant CRA can help ensure you make informed hiring decisions based on quality results.  

Direct searches. Instead of relying on FBI records, which may be incomplete or outdated, CRAs go straight to the original source. They search directly with federal, state, and county courts and criminal records repositories to gather comprehensive, up-to-date criminal data which ensures both timely and accurate results.

Technology advantage. CRAs often use AI-powered platforms, machine learning, or data engineering to aggregate and maximize the quality of their data for better search results. 

Get a Background Check with GoodHire

Employers should choose background screening options based on the needs of their organization. If fingerprint background checks are part of your employment screening process, you may wish to consider conducting additional checks through a qualified CRA for more comprehensive results. 

Criminal background checks are among the hundreds of background screening options GoodHire offers to employers of all sizes. Our easy end-to-end workflow, unparalleled access to databases, and national network of professional court runners provide streamlined and up-to-date reports for more informed hiring decisions. 

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disclaimer

The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.


About the Author

author karen axelton

Karen Axelton is a Southern California-based freelance writer specializing in business topics. 

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