Last month, a professor at Michigan State University, Anil Jain, had an interesting night. Law enforcement showed up at his lab, not to arrest him, but to ask for his help. Jain, a computer science professor who works with things like facial recognition programs, was asked whether or not he could help unlock a dead man's phone.
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Jain and Sunpreet Arora, a PhD student, weren't able to share details, but the main story here is that a man was murdered and they believe clues to his murder are on his cell phone. However, they are unable to access the phone without a fingerprint or a passcode. Instead of trying to break into the phone, they are asking Jain whether or not he can make a 3D replica of the victim's fingerprint to open the phone.
He was able to do that using a scan of the victim's fingerprints that were on record with his own criminal activity. They were able to recreate all ten digits.
“We don’t know which finger the suspect used,” he told Rose Eveleth in a phone conversation. “We think it’s going to be the thumb or index finger—that’s what most people use—but we have all ten.”
Now, a 3D fingerprint probably isn't enough to unlock a phone anymore. Most fingerprint readers need heat in order to work thanks to the electrical circuits that they use to work. Skin helps to the circuits moving. Arora foresaw this, so he coated the fingers in a thin layer of metallic particles.
They still haven't tested the fingerprints as they are perfecting the technology, but the hope is that they will use it to unlock the phone. Of course, this is a heated debate because it goes back to the privacy of our cell phones. Of course, the fact that the owner of the phone is dead does eliminate some of the legal problems that could pop up.
The question is whether or not we should use this to technology for cold cases, current cases, and cases involving living suspects. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that police need to have a warrant in order to look through someone's cell phone.
Arora said that he wasn't sure how the police found his lab. “I think these guys also go online to figure out stuff about how to hack phones,” he said, “so we probably popped up.”
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Of course, that is even if the fingerprints will work, as it might be that a code will be required anyway if it hasn't been unlocked in some time.