Police Use 3D Printing to Unlock Victim’s Phone

Michigan police have merged 3D printing with forensic science. Police in that state found a murder victim’s phone which held much of the evidence surrounding the murder. There was only one problem – the victim’s phone was set up to unlock only upon scanning the owner’s fingerprint, meaning police couldn’t unlock the device. Police approached Michigan State Computer Engineering professor and fingerprint scanning specialist, Dr. Anil Jain to help them find a way to use the victim’s fingerprints to unlock the Samsung Galaxy S6. In addition to fingerprint scanning, Dr. Jain also studies tattoo matching and facial recognition, but had never undertaken such an onerous task. Police provided Dr. Jain and his grad student, Sunpreet Arora with images of the victim’s fingerprints which were on file with the police, since the victim was previously known to the authorities.

How 3D Printing Can Be Used to Hack a Phone

Jain and Arora were able to create digital replicas of the prints and create 3D printed models of the digital versions of the prints. Jain and Arora then coated the 3D prints in Micron Level Coating in order to mimic the electrical conductivity of human skin. When a person dies and blood flow stops, the skin loses its electrical properties. It is your skin’s electrical properties that allow you to unlock your phone by dragging your finger and across the screen, and why police couldn’t simply drag the victim’s finger across the phone to unlock it.

Once armed with Dr. Jain’s 3D micron coated fingerprints, they were able to unlock the victim’s phone and access the evidence hidden within. A skilled hacker with access to a 3D printer, a photo of a phone user’s fingerprints, and Micron Level Coating or something similar would, in theory, be able to use this same method to hack into a phone.

What Technology Users Should Know

Jain told news outlets that instead of hacking phones, he usually spends his time researching ways in which hackers can use biometric and cheap personal 3D printers to break into smartphones. Dr. Jain has been working in the biometrics field for a quarter of a century and uses 3D printing techniques and experimental biometrics to research ways to allow technology users to keep their devices safe and their privacy intact. Jain has even posted a video to YouTube demonstrating to smartphone users how easy it is for hackers to use a 2D version of a fingerprint to break into a phone.

Jain says that once smartphone producers are armed with this knowledge, it is their responsibility to come up with new ways to keep their products secure. Dr. Jain and his team’s breakthrough work in forensic biometrics helped to solve a crime that otherwise might have gone unsolved. This work also serves as a lesson to all of us to keep our devices safe. With hackers always coming up with new ways to use cutting edge science to invade your privacy, it is up to people like Dr. Anil Jain to stay one step ahead.