New fingerprint tech capable of detecting traces of drugs, blood, alcohol and more

October 11, 2017 - 

Research teams at Sheffield Hallam University have been collaborating with West Yorkshire Police since 2012 in testing new technology that uses a form of mass spectrometry to find traces of different substances within a fingerprint, according to a report by The BBC.

The technique is close to becoming admissible as evidence in court, with the Home Office recently confirming it could be “only months” before the technology is used in casework.

Researchers have said that the advanced fingerprinting technique can provide “diverse information” about a suspect, including any alcohol or drug use.

The pilot project’s lead Dr. Simona Francese said the technology had been used to detect blood in a 30-year-old fingerprint, which means the technique could be used in cold case reviews.

“I would want to see this technology in high-profile cases such as murder or rape. It’s very sophisticated, it’s expensive but it’s worthwhile,” Dr. Francese said.

Using the analytical technique, forensics officials can uncover traces of substances on or within the ridges of the fingerprint by vaporizing the sample and then firing it through an electric and magnetic field situated in a vacuum.

Since particles of different mass behave differently under such conditions, the research team can effectively identify molecules found within the fingerprint.

The technique allows workers to analyze a diverse set of information. For instance, scientists have been able to examine the proteins found in the fingerprint and differentiate whether the individual is male or female.

“When you think about what a fingerprint is, it’s nothing else but sweat and sweat is a biological matrix,” Dr Francese said. “It contains molecules from within your body but also molecules that you have just contaminated your fingertips with, so the amount of information there potentially to retrieve is huge.”

“We’re very, very keen to keep up with criminals quite frankly, and this is one way that we can do that,”

Meanwhile, Neil Denison, acting director of Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Scientific Support at West Yorkshire Police, said they are “very keen to keep up with criminals” and that the method is one way that we can maintain that pace.

“It confirms our hopes because that’s what this work is about. It’s about looking to the future, fingerprints have been pretty dormant for 80 or 90 years but in the future we are hopeful that we’ll be able to get more useful intelligence from fingerprints that will help us in the prevention and detection of crime,” Denison said.

Using mass spectrometry, the method can distinguish a person’s sex, whether the person person has touched blood and whether it is from a human or animal, whether the person has taken drugs as well as which drugs they have taken, whether a strand of hair is present on the fingerprint, if there are traces of cleaning products or cosmetics, whether the person has touched condom lubricants (and even determining the brand), and what food and drink has been consumed (such as garlic and caffeine).

The Home Office has invested £80,000 (US$105,740) in the project, with senior technical specialist Stephen Bleay creating a blueprint for all police forces in the UK to use.

“There’s a lot of scientific work going on, with Sheffield Hallam University and West Yorkshire Police visiting crime scenes looking at how this technique could fit in with the work flow of collecting conventional forensic evidence and other types of evidence, such as DNA and fibres,” Bleay said. “I think it’s fairly close to bottoming out all the questions that could be raised in court. It’s possible this is only months away from being used on casework.”

Meanwhile, Martin Holleran, senior lecturer in policing studies at York St John University, said procedure serves as a “great opportunity” for criminal investigations that “builds on” the Edmond Locard’s “theory of every crime leaves a trace”.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.