Police Seek Biometrics Researcher’s Help To Unlock Murder Victim’s Phone

Police have reached out to an academic researcher to help them unlock a murder victim’s smartphone via fingerprint scan, believing that the device may contain clues about who killed him.

Police Seek Biometrics Researcher's Help To Unlock Murder Victim's PhoneAs for the identity of the academic, it’s none other than Michigan State University’s Dr. Anil Jain, whose biometric technology has been licensed by NEC Corporation of America, and who was recently invited to speak at the headquarters of biometrics company ZKTeco. Performing his “social duty to assist in a criminal investigation,” as Dr. Jain put it to The Guardian, his lab is working to fabricate prosthetic fingerprints that could unlock the device. Police provided his team with 2D fingerprints previously taken from the victim, and they have been working to convert them into three dimensions, which are then printed and coated in metal to enable the electrical conductivity required by the smartphone’s capacitive fingerprint sensor.

They haven’t yet delivered a finished solution to the police, but there is already some speculation about how such methods could potentially conflict with civil rights. Apple was just recently in a high-profile standoff against the FBI, for example, over that organization’s efforts to compel the tech company to engineer technology allowing it to access a terror suspect’s iPhone; it is perhaps telling that police investigating this crime have apparently chosen to bypass the smartphone maker entirely.

Of course, the individual whose privacy is being violated is, in fact, dead, but if a viable solution emerges from Dr. Jain’s lab, it could theoretically be used to replicate the fingerprints of the living, as well. Speaking to Fusion, law and technology researcher Bryan Choi noted that America tends to protect information in a person’s head, but not bodily evidence, and pointed out that a Virginia court ruled in 2014 that police could compel criminal suspects to unlock their smartphones via fingerprint scan, but couldn’t make them say their passwords. For his part, Choi argues that smartphones are essentially extensions of our minds, and that courts should treat them as such. But that, again, wouldn’t apply to the case that Dr. Jain’s lab is working on.

Sources: Fusion, The Guardian

July 22, 2016 – by Alex Perala