New Fingerprinting Technique Has Surprising Advantages

August 09, 2008 08:58 AM
by Josh Katz
Researchers have unveiled new fingerprinting technology. Not only is it a superior aid in catching criminals, but it might be able to detect some health problems.

DESI Technology Improves Fingerprinting Methods

Damien Ifa led a research team from Purdue University in Indiana to develop the new fingerprinting technology, which uses an analytical technique called desorption electrospray ionisation (DESI).

An electrically charged mixture is sprayed onto the fingerprint creating a liquid film comprised of chemical substances. A mass spectrometer then separates and discerns the different substances. “All this takes only a few tenths of a second,” the Economist reports. The result is a two-dimensional image.

The technology can be used on any surface, including glass, paper or plastic. Also, thanks to the chemical readings, it can reveal what people touched prior to leaving the fingerprints, such as explosives, drugs or poisons.

According to The Telegraph, “This method can also be used directly on a fingerprint, right where it's found, without the need to lift the print off and take it to a lab for analysis.”

Furthermore, the chemical readings can provide information about the health of the person who left the prints. Multiple prints that overlap can also be separately identified, a complicated task for standard optical tests.
Investigators have used fingerprint patterns to identify suspects for over 100 years, according to The Independent. Graham Cooks, from Purdue University, said, "The classic fingerprint is an ink imprint showing the unique swirls and loops used for identification, but fingerprints also leave behind a unique distribution of molecular compounds.”

The equipment for implementing the tests is commercially available but costly, generally limiting the customer base to larger crime labs. The New York Times reports that, “Smaller, cheaper, portable versions of such analyzers are probably only a couple of years away.” Purdue has licensed out the DESI technology to an Indianapolis-based company called Prosolia Inc., which has sold 70 analyzers so far. The most state-of-the art version sold for about $60,000, according to The New York Times.

The technology is not limited to the pursuit of criminals, however. “This is really just an offshoot of a project that is really aimed at trying to develop a methodology ultimately to be used in surgery,” Graham Cooks said. If the DESI analyzer can be made smaller and automated, it could be very useful to surgeons testing tissue samples. The Purdue researchers have “successfully tested the method on bladder tumors in dogs,” The New York Times writes.

The technology could also be used to test athletes for illicit substances instead of using blood and urine tests, according to The Telegraph.

The DESI analyzers could present some problems, however. Michael Cherry, vice chairman of the digital technology committee at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says that, for the time being, courts may not accept the validity of evidence obtained through the new technology, Technology Review reports.

The New York Times also suggests that the analyzers could cause ethical concerns if employers used the technology to test employees for drug use by analyzing their keyboards, for example.

Related Topics: Fingerprinting for the GMAT; fingerprint technology and computers


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