Law enforcement isn’t happy about the rise of biometric phone security — that is, fingerprint sensors — because it is incredibly hard to bypass. To get around the pesky issue, police have turned to 3D-printing, requesting a lab recreate and 3D print a phone owner’s fingerprints in a way that they can be used to unlock the phone. Though the 3D-printed fingerprints haven’t yet been verified as functional, the issue has already raised a new round of criticism and privacy concerns.
The work’s being done by Michigan State University professor Anil Jain and his lab. Jain was reportedly approached by police who needed a murder victim’s fingerprints in order to unlock his phone, which they believe may have info that could lead them to the killer. Trying to force companies to unlock phones has already proven unsuccessful and costly; instead, the cops are hoping 3D-printed fingerprints can be used to access the handset.
To start with, an existing fingerprint from the individual is needed; the phone’s owner was reportedly arrested at some point in the past, and so his fingerprints are accessible to law enforcement. The police provided those fingerprints to Jain’s lab where one of his PhD students, Sunpreet Arora, transformed them into 3D replicas. Because any finger could be used to lock the phone, the team had to recreate all ten digits so that each one could be tested.
In order to work with the circuits in the phone’s fingerprint sensor, Arora added a metallic particles layer to the 3D-printed fingerprints, hopefully enabling them to activate the sensor. No one knows whether the fingerprints will unlock the phone, as the process is still underway and the police haven’t tried them yet.
The technology does raise a new big privacy concern, and critics express worry that law enforcement may one day be able to use a living suspect’s fingerprints to access their phone. Anyone arrested will have their fingerprints available to law enforcement; theoretically, all it would take is a court order authorizing a phone search for police to recreate fingerprints and use them to unlock devices.