What is a Live Scan?

Mary McMahon

A live scan is a fingerprinting technique where a technician rolls a subject's fingers across a glass plate for a scanner to pick up and record the fingerprints digitally. The process is very rapid, and a skilled technician can collect a complete set of fingerprints in 10 minutes or less. Once the fingerprints enter the system, it is possible to quickly compare them with a number of digitized fingerprint databases. Many law enforcement agencies use live scanning for fingerprint collection and prefer this method.

A live scan is a technique to digitially capture fingerprints.
A live scan is a technique to digitially capture fingerprints.

For traditional fingerprint collection, the technician had to roll the subject's fingers on an ink pad and then apply them to a sheet of paper, taking care to avoid smudges, smears, and other problems. It could take weeks to send the fingerprints out for comparison, making tasks like background checks and identity verifications a lengthy process. It also left all parties with messy fingers, thanks to the ink. Live scanning represents a significant improvement over this technique.

In a live scan, the subject's fingers need to be clean for a crisp image, but no ink is necessary. The technician rolls the fingers across the scanner and the equipment can quickly determine if a fingerprint is good or needs to be repeated because of a smear or other problem. Once all the fingerprints are in the system, the technician can start to run comparisons, or can send the file out for a background check. Background checks can be completed in as little as 72 hours with a live scan, because the information is easy to transmit and compare.

Law enforcement agencies use live scan fingerprinting when booking people in and taking fingerprints for background checks. People like government workers, teachers, and certain other individuals will need to have a background check and a set of prints on file before they can start work. Their employers will fill out a request for live scan service for them to take to a police station or live scanning center.

This process should be painless, clean, and rapid. People with conditions like arthritis that may cause tenderness or stiffness in the joints should alert the technician before they start, so the technician can take care to avoid undue stress and strain on the fingers. Once the fingerprints enter the system, they will be on record permanently with data about the person's identity, and may be used in background checks and other screenings performed by law enforcement agencies.

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