3D Printing Helps Unlock Phone's Secrets

By Alicia Young July 25, 2016

Recently, the police’s ability to access someone’s phone has been a hot topic in American news. I’m sure we all remember the ordeal involving Apple and the FBI in regards to the San Bernadino shooter’s phone privacy. It raised a lot of questions about how far the police are allowed to go before infringing on an individual’s rights in the search for justice and the truth. The issue occurred when the FBI asked Apple for access to the shooter’s phone, and they refuse on ground of privacy. Now, the issue is being raised again in regard to a dead man’s phone, but police are avoiding problems by taking the phone company out of the equation all together. How are they doing this? Well, they’re having a 3D model made of the dead man’s fingerprints.

Law enforcement officers are taking on this task with the help of Anil Jain, a computer science professor at Michigan State University. Jain specializes in biometric identifiers such as facial recognition programs, fingerprint scanners and tattoo matching. His goal is to make them as difficult to hack as possible. Officers went to Jain in the hope that his extensive knowledge on the subject could help them unlock a dead man’s phone. Although there is not a lot of information available at the moment since it is an ongoing investigation, we do know that the deceased man was murdered. Police hope there will be information on his murderer in his phone, but they have no way of unlocking it without his fingerprints

So how will this work, exactly? The deceased was arrested once during his life, so the police already had a scan of his fingerprints. With the advent of 3D printing, Jain can use a 3D printer to create an actual mold of the man’s fingerprints. They decided to make a print of each finger, because they do not know which finger the man used to unlock his phone. Those of you who know a bit about finger scanning are probably wondering how a 3D print is going to work, since the scanning process is so complex. Most fingerprint readers used on phones are capacitive, so they rely on the closing of tiny electrical circuits to work. The ridges of your fingers cause some of these circuits to come in contact with each other, thus creating an image of the fingerprint. Skin is conductive enough to close these circuits, but the normal 3D printing plastic isn’t. This is where the potential problem comes in. To combat this, Jain coated the 3D printed fingers in a thin layer of metallic particles so that the fingerprint scanner can read them.

Other skeptics have pointed out that many phones, after 48 hours of not being used, require more than just a fingerprint to unlock the phone;

                      Image via Bigstock

there is typically an additional passcode to verify the phone user’s identity. Hopefully Jain’s efforts won’t go to waste, and the 3D fingerprints work so that this man’s murder can be solved.

This case has raised many of the same issues that the FBI and Apple dealt with not that long ago. The police in this case argue that it is not infringing on the man’s rights because he is deceased. If there is evidence of any other crimes on the phone, it really won’t matter because he can’t be charged with anything post-mortem. Whatever is found on his phone will have no impact on him whatsoever; it could just help solve his murder.

Aside from the moral questions of someone’s privacy, there is also no legal problem with what the police are doing in this case. According to the courts, there is actually a big difference between a fingerprint password and a memorized one. “Courts generally draw a line between the ‘contents of the mind’ (which is protected) and ‘tangible’ bodily evidence like blood, DNA, and fingerprints (which is not),” said Bryan Choi, a researcher who focuses on issues of security, law and technology. There is a difference because its physical property vs. your mind. Essentially, a police officer can ask you to unlock your phone with your fingerprint because they are not infringing on your personal thoughts; aka, a memorized password.

This debate and the police’s approach is certainly interesting. It shows how powerful 3D printing is and opens up a whole new can of worms regarding privacy. What do you think about the issue? Are the police right to use a deceased man’s fingerprints in an attempt to solve his murder? Or are they infringing on his privacy, even after death? Let us know your opinion in the comments!




Edited by Maurice Nagle
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