Everyone knows that a smartphone offers a treasure trove of personal information. But while we’re all aware that what’s in our phones is a microcosm of our lives, what’s on our phones can be intensely revealing as well.
The smudges on your phone can paint a portrait – your gender, diet, medications, clothing and beauty products – as well as reveal the places you’ve visited. Chemical signatures accumulate whenever you regularly touch something, and offer a potential new tool for use in criminal profiling, airport screening and clinical trials.
While this information is not yet admissible in court, it can still be used to identify a person, much like a fingerprint or a DNA sample. For criminal investigators, it can provide valuable information in cases where fingerprints or DNA sequencing have failed in making an identification. According to a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, much of the common analysis used in criminal trials fails to meet scientific standards.
The new techniques arise from research into the biochemistry of the skin. Last year, researchers compiled the first three-dimensional map of microbial variations across the body. Taking swabs from 400 places on the body, they analyzed the samples using mass spectrometry. Volunteers were asked to eschew bathing or using personal care products for three days prior to sampling. Researchers were surprised to see that the samples were still rich with traces of various personal care products.
The latest study, funded by the National Institute of Justice (part of the Dept. of Justice), tested 39 subjects and their phones. They took samples from the front and back of the phones as well as from the palm and fingers of each subject’s right hand. Using a mass spectrometer, they studied molecules found in each sample and identified as many as possible. They were able to detect numerous substances on the phones: skin creams, hair loss treatments, antidepressants and eye drops as well as substances such as citrus, caffeine, chili, sunscreen and insect repellant. Ninety percent of the individuals participating were correctly identified based on findings from the phones.
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Cellphone Smudges Yield a Trove of Forensic Data | Wall Street Journal