According to a new study by a team of biochemist researchers from the University of California San Diego, a person’s cellphone screen has a lot of information about the user. The current proof-of-principle study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The team investigated the ‘molecular lifestyle signatures’ present in cellphones owned by a group of individuals. These ‘signatures’ can be defined as chemical traces, tiny bits of detritus, etc. left behind by daily activities and the kind of external environment a person happens to be in.
A lot of things can leave behind signatures. These items include medicines, diet, pesticides, as well as beauty and hygiene products. According to the author of the study, Pieter Dorrestein, who is also a US San Diego biochemist, different chemical traces present on the human body can transfer onto the objects we use. That is why the team of researchers thought about profiling the lifestyle of a person by making use of the chemistries that can be detected on the objects individuals commonly use such as cellphones.
For conducting the current research, swabbed samples were obtained from the phones of numerous volunteers and their right hands. The signatures present on the devices were then compared to an already present chemical database through the use of mass spectrometry. The said technique is able to differentiate between molecules on the basis of their electrical charge and mass. The team of researchers theorized that the swabs from the cellphone’s back can tell what a person’s hand leaves behind while the swabs from the front of the device can tell about an individual’s face.
Traces of skin inflammation, using treatments for hair loss, medication for fungal infections, depression, etc. could be detected through such means. Researchers also found traces of caffeine, which would imply that the said person was a coffee or tea drinker. Chemical traces such as sunscreen and plant sugar could indicate that a person spent most of their time outside. DEET, a pesticide used in mosquito repellants could be detected even after it was used five months ago. Certain traces of chemicals, such as the use of cosmetics, could tell if the owner of a device was more likely to be female rather than male.
The current research isn’t the first that deeply analyzes what can be found on cellphones. Back in 2011, it was estimated in a study that out of every six swabbed devices, one cellphone was home to fecal bacteria.
The current research was conducted in order to provide forensic scientists a better idea regarding the lifestyle and routine of a person. If doesn’t necessarily replace the importance of fingerprints during investigations. However, it does provide some details that can be helpful in fighting crime. According to the team of researchers, the data from the current study might help investigators narrow down the owner of a particular object. It can also help them understand the crime scene better and gain more information about the habits a suspected terrorist might have. The results from the current study showed that the researchers were able to correctly identify about 90% of the individuals the swabbed cellphones belonged to.