Smartphones with fingerprint scanners have become a given, even on most budget devices. So what happens when a phone is locked, and the user is killed, but the police believes unlocking the phone could help solve the crime? One such case has come up in the US, where police have turned to a computer science professor at Michigan State University in order to unlock a deceased victim’s phone.
The police is relying on help from Computer Science Professor Anil Jain and his PhD student Sunpreet Arora to create a 3D printed copy of the victim’s fingerprint. According to a report on Fusion.Net, Jain works on biometric identifiers such as fingerprint scanners, tattoo matching, and facial recognition software and trying to make these extremely difficult to hack.
Jain told Fusion the police believe the clues to the man’s murder are stored on his own phone, and thus need help in unlocking the device. He didn’t reveal more details because it is an ongoing investigation.
Fingerprint scanner in today’s phones are capacitive, and the ridges on a finger help complete the circuit of the scanners to unlock the device. In this case, to mimic a fingerprint, the team had to coat the surface of the 3D prints with a thin metallic layer, to make it conductive like a normal human finger.
But the case also highlights the kind of challenges that exist for law enforcement agencies, especially in today’s digital age where smartphones are the most important device in any user’s life.
The current case of police approaching for help to unlock a smartphone is in stark contrast to the San Bernardino shooter one, where the FBI needed the help of the phone manufacturer to unlock the device. In this particular case, because the police already has the victim’s fingerprints from a previous case; thus the authorities have a slight edge in hoping to unlock the smartphone and don’t need to approach the manufacturer. Plus here the police is hoping to locate the victim’s murderer.
In the San Bernardino case, the problem was with the FBI’s demand that Apple create a special software so that the agency could eventually unlock the smartphone. FBI wanted Apple to break the encryption software it had created to protect iPhones, and Apple argued such a software would only weaken user privacy across the board for its customers.
The fingerprint scanner case, of course, poses interesting insights on user privacy and how efficient these are in keeping devices secure. The current belief is that fingerprint scanners are less secure than a phone that uses a passkey or a pattern to unlock.
Even though fooling a fingerprint scanner might be out of the reach for regular folks, experts have demonstrated how easy it is to dust off someone’s fingerprint from a surface before using it to unlock a user’s device. The mobile security market is thus, slowly shifting to iris scanners, which are said to be more secure than traditional fingerprint scanners. Even so, having a passkey to unlock your phone might be the safest way of securing your device at the moment.