Police want US lab to 3D-print murder victim’s fingers to crack phone

© Edgar Su
Scientists at a 3D-printing lab in Michigan are trying to help authorities unlock a murder victim’s phone by creating replicas of the dead man’s fingers. It could become the first time such technology has been used in an active police investigation.

Police trying to solve a case asked a 3D-printing lab at Michigan State University specializing in biometric identifiers such as “facial recognition programs, fingerprint scanners and tattoo matching” to reproduce fingers of a murdered man, Fusion reports. With the replicas, police are hoping to unlock the victim’s phone – something that they believe will bring them closer to finding the murderer.

On Thursday, Fusion’s Rose Eveleth reported that police approached the lab of Anil Jain, a professor at Michigan State University, last month. Eager to help with the case, Jain and his PhD student Sunpreet Arora agreed to reproduce the murderer’s fingers and 3D-printed all ten of them.

“We don’t know which finger the suspect used,” Arora told Eveleth. “We think it’s going to be the thumb or index finger – that’s what most people use – but we have all 10.”

It turns out police had previously obtained the victim’s fingerprints while he was alive, (possibly because he was detained for an unrelated incident). The replicas scientists printed out were based on the fingerprints the officers had.

However, freshly-printed replicas alone are not enough to “deceive” the phone’s scanner. Most phones’ fingerprint sensors rely on the closing of small electrical circuits. While real fingers have electrically conductive ridges that allow the circuits to come together, conduct a charge and generate an image of a fingerprint, the same is not possible for artificial plastic fingers. Since plastic material does not carry electrical charge the scientists covered the replicas with a special metallic coating.

Scientists are yet to find out whether their inventive technology works out and are prepared to pass over the 3D-printed fingers to police. Researchers who are still conducting experiments on the replicas in the lab said that they would hand over the fingers once they have done enough testing.

The issue of phone privacy has been the subject of heated debate in the US, especially after the FBI sought Apple’s help to crack the phone of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack. A legal expert, however, said that this particular case was different as police were trying to gain access to the victim’s phone.

READ MORE: FBI may keep vulnerability it used to access iPhone under wraps

“The Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination. Here, the fingerprints are of the deceased victim, not the murder suspect. Obviously, the victim is not at risk of incrimination,” Brian Choi told Fusion.

The scientists said they were not sure how police found out about their lab but pointed out they had nothing against helping them. “We do it for the fun,” they said.