Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Smudges on Your Cellphone are a Trove of Data

This article in the Wall Street Journal discusses how smudges on your cellphone can actually be a trove of data that can be used against you. The smudges that you leave behind on your cellphone, wallet, keys, and credit cards can actually linger for months and can reveal gender, diet, medications, and in some cases can reveal places you have visited. This article talks about some experiments that have been done in order to better develop this theory.

What they found was that these chemical signatures that are left to build up on things that you regularly touch. This started off as a new forensic technique first reported by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it is important to note that this is not yet admissible in court. This method was first thought of to help in cases where fingerprints cannot identify anyone and DNA sequencing cannot identify a person. These chemical signatures left behind can discover the habits of an individual which can be a powerful tool for investigators.

Last year a doctor even did an experiment on thirty nine individuals and their cellphones. The doctor and his colleagues swabbed the individuals’ skin and their cellphones. They swabbed their hands and the front and back of the cellphones and then used a mass spectrometer to detect the molecules in each sample, consulted chemical databases, then tried to identify as many people as they could. They were 90% correct in trying to identify the people.

My initial reaction after reading this article was just pure amazement about how awesome technology and science can be. About five minutes later I looked at my phone and realized just how crazy this article actually is. The fact that someone with a mass spectrometer can pretty much identify personal things about me just by swabbing my cellphone made my head spin. In this study they were able to find traces of citrus, caffeine, different medicines, hair loss treatments, antidepressants, and even eye drops. All of that from the smudge on a cellphone. What started off as pure amazement and appreciation of science and technology, turned into me grabbing a wipe and cleaning my phone. The advancements in science are truly amazing. I think from a forensic science point of view this will be huge down the road. Right now it is not admissible in court but perhaps further down the road, after more experiments it will be. I am all for using any sort of technology necessary for finding the criminals in this world, and if it means swabbing random parts of the crime season for chemical signatures I am all for it.

It truly did amaze me how this doctor and his colleagues were able to identify 90% of the people in this experiment. To me I just think it’s insane how the things you are constantly touching can actually tell someone else all about you. Science and technology are just awesome.


  1. I always knew how important the connection is between technology and the medical field is but after reading this about Daniel's article, I was shocked. When looking at my iPhone there are smudges all over that barley disappear with a wipe.In today's society we are attached to our phones and never put them down. he idea that this attachment can be used to build a composite sketch of an individual is kind of frightening and something I believe will become an issue with privacy. When trying to find out about an individual with their cellphone, you use to have to be able to get into it first. Now with the use of these smudges, an individuals whereabouts can be detected and that may become too close to comfort. I agree with Daniel in that using technology to determine a criminal is key and this is a huge step for forensics.
    I found an article that talks about how the smudges on your smartphone may even be used to hack into it. Now a days everyone has a passcode on their phone as a safety feature. By a simple touching of four numbers you can get into your phone. However, this feature can also be a key issue in security of smartphones. Hackers are able to detect key patterns from the residue your fingers lead behind and can determine your password.The article also talks about how Androids are even at a bigger threat because of the simple swipe patterns used. Patterns can be determine 92% of the time all because of simple residue left behind.
    After reading Daniel's article and about how easy it is for our phones to be hacked into, I immediately want to wipe down my phone. Our phones go everywhere with us and have millions of smudges on them. I now know that these aren't just smudges, they hold all of our identities.

  2. This article just goes to show how much technology is changing everyday. The fact that scientists and analysts are now able to use an individual's cellphone to discover personal things about them is quite innovative. If this process can become more precise and be able to be used as a valid source of data within courts, this would be a major breakthrough for the forensic and criminal justice fields. I believe that more innovations like this will benefit society by being able to provide possible information that may be missing from a criminal case. It is also a little unsettling at the same time that a person is able to determine personal and intimate details about individuals just by running a swab over a cellphone screen. It is true most people don't clean their screens on a regular basis and the smudges could provide crucial information if the process becomes perfected. Overall I would say this was an interesting article to read and provided great insight on what is to come in the future as well as create a sense that we should start to clean our cellphone screens more often.

  3. This article and idea blew my mind because I did not think that this would ever be possible. I think it is unbelievable that they can just swipe belongings that you have touched and analyzed the molecular structure to identify a person. I guess this would mean, once this process is approved for court, this would be extremely useful in forensics, considering fingerprints would no longer be necessary. I wonder though if this can be danger in any matter? I feel with every advancement we have with technology, there is always some means where it could be used in a negative manner. For example, I feel like government could use this technique to delve even deeper into the lives of people, building a profile full of their personal information. This would take the collection of data and privacy boundaries to a whole new level. Also, what if someone outside of forensics, who may have knowledge of this somehow manages to gain information about a person through this tactic, would this be a way to steal their identity maybe or infiltrate their profile. For some reason, I feel as if this process could become extremely dangerous when in the hands of the wrong person, but extremely beneficial when it is in the right hands. Overall, right now I feel the positive use of this would outweigh the negative possibilities of this technique. I think it would be incredible to implement this into health industries and airport security to only improve their functionalities. Also, I was thinking about this in a different manner – what if they could use this technology now to solve crimes of the past. Would they be able to look at evidence from cases like the Jon Bennett and decipher and swipes or left over chemical imprints? I think if they took this idea and applied it to the past maybe they could uncover some details about past tragedies that could never be found. I don’t know if the technology would work like this, but if it could I think it could be put towards many cases. I think this is one of the most interesting means of data being used, and if it is used correctly, like in forensics, it could be a huge help.


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