A fingerprint is made of a series of ridges and furrows on the surface of the finger. The uniqueness of a fingerprint can be determined by the pattern of ridges and furrows as well as the minutiae points. Minutiae points are local ridge characteristics that occur at either a ridge bifurcation or a ridge ending. Typically, human and computer investigators concentrate on points where ridge lines end or where one ridge splits into two (bifurcations). Collectively, these and other distinctive features are sometimes called typica.
The scanner system software uses highly complex algorithms to recognize and analyze these minutiae. The basic idea is to measure the relative positions of minutiae, in the same sort of way you might recognize a part of the sky by the relative positions of stars. A simple way to think of it is to consider the shapes that various minutia form when you draw straight lines between them. If two prints have three ridge endings and two bifurcations, forming the same shape with the same dimensions, there's a high likelihood they're from the same print.
To get a match, the scanner system doesn't have to find the entire pattern of minutiae both in the sample and in the print on record; it simply has to find a sufficient number of minutiae patterns that the two prints have in common. The exact number varies according to the scanner programming.
Fingerprint matching techniques can be placed into two categories: minutiae-based and correlation based. Minutiae-based techniques first find minutiae points and then map their relative placement on the finger. However, there are some difficulties when using this approach. It is difficult to extract the minutiae points accurately when the fingerprint is of low quality. Also this method does not take into account the global pattern of ridges and furrows. The correlation-based method is able to overcome some of the difficulties of the minutiae-based approach. However, it has some of its own shortcomings. Correlation-based techniques require the precise location of a registration point and are affected by image translation and rotation.