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Chemical Traces On Your Phone Reveal Your Lifestyle, Scientists Say (theguardian.com) 80

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Scientists say they can deduce the lifestyle of an individual, down to the kind of grooming products they use, food they eat and medications they take, from chemicals found on the surface of their mobile phone. Experts say analysis of someone's phone could be a boon both to healthcare professionals, and the police. "You can narrow down male versus female; if you then figure out they use sunscreen then you pick out the [people] that tend to be outdoorsy -- so all these little clues can sort of narrow down the search space of candidate people for an investigator," said Pieter Dorrestein, co-author of the research from the University of California, San Diego. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the U.S. and Germany describe how they swabbed the mobile phone and right hand of 39 individuals and analyzed the samples using the highly sensitive technique of mass spectrometry. The results revealed that each person had a distinct "signature" set of chemicals on their hands which distinguished them from each other. What's more, these chemicals partially overlapped with those on their phones, allowing the devices to be distinguished from each other, and matched to their owners. Analysis of the chemical traces using a reference database allowed the team to match the chemicals to known substances or their relatives to reveal tell-tale clues from each individual's life -- from whether they use hair-loss treatments to whether they are taking antidepressants.
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Chemical Traces On Your Phone Reveal Your Lifestyle, Scientists Say

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Just say it, the semen all over my phone makes it obvious I'm a Slashdotter.

  • This technique will soon be used by law enforcement to profile persons with encrypted phones, especially at the borders. I will be sure to stick mine up my ass before handing it to them.
    • Wouldn't that just give them more material to sample for their search?

      • In communist Russia (Score:5, Interesting)

        by RuffMasterD ( 3398975 ) on Tuesday November 15, 2016 @05:10AM (#53287805)
        This reminds me of a story I read where Stalin had a special toilet installed for a diplomatic visit from Mao. The toilet didn't drain into the sewer, but into a special tank. Then the Soviets did nothing with Mao but feed him as much food as he could possibly eat for ten days. At some point he angrily shouted that he was in Russia to do more than just eat and shit. Meanwhile Stalin had a crack team of scientists secretly collect and analyse Mao's stool samples for clues into his personality. They took it so seriously that they decided not to sign a trade agreement or something. Source [bbc.com].
        • It has been reported that many leaders [rense.com] have been victims of unauthorized, er, specimen collection.

          (tldr) G.W. Bush is alleged to have traveled with a Presidential porta-potty to protect the First Deuce.

          • Francois Mitterand, former French president was also diagnosed early on with prostate cancer, but they kept this a secret for obvious political reasons. Every time he had to go abroad, they made sure not to throw any of the medication packages in the trash can, since they know it would be searched. I don't know if they went as far as making him poop or pee in another bathroom or porta-potty though.
          • (for a moment I thought the discussion was about undisclosed children)
        • Speaking of which, would they be able to tell how much time I spend playing Angry Birds on the shitter by the amount of poop particles on the phone?

          • by ( 4621901 )

            No, unless your phone has diagnosed with projectile motion sickness disorder while smelling like sh*t.

      • by Tesen ( 858022 )

        Wouldn't that just give them more material to sample for their search?

        They could do a health check and profit at the same time! Sir/Ma'am we have discovered you are lacking a variety of gut bacteria that is considered healthy, while we detain you, please feel free to purchase some probiotics from our border detainment probiotics counter.

    • This technique will soon be used by law enforcement to profile persons with encrypted phones, especially at the borders. I will be sure to stick mine up my ass before handing it to them.

      But that technique, if I understand it, would work on just about anything regularly touched by the subject: wristwatch, glasses, pen, wallet... It doesn't seem this should be unique to a phone, encrypted or otherwise. The article seems to be making a big deal about hair products for instance: If you're interested in that, just take a strand of the subject's hair!

  • Not surprising (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ITRambo ( 1467509 ) on Tuesday November 15, 2016 @03:15AM (#53287545)
    This is in no way a surprise to learn that the chemicals on the hand that picks up and handles the phone are also on the phone. I wonder who paid for this study and what agencies the scientists are hoping will continue to fund further research that further proves that when you touch something you transfer what you had on the surface of your hands. Are they hoping that law enforcement supports their work? This might be useful where burner phones were used in a crime and were wiped to remove prints. Outside of that scenario, I don't see another practical use for this analytical method..
    • I had similar questions. It's pretty common knowledge that doorknobs will show samples of the diseases of all that used the door, and that money will show traces of drugs because drug control laws have worked so well or something.

      The best explanation I have is someone wanted to know how unique the samples of chemicals on a highly personal item, like a phone, might be. Who would be interested in this enough to spend money on it? That could be a lot of people.

      I do not believe the scenario you pose is plaus

      • by Calydor ( 739835 )

        Be careful with thinking it can't be traced with any certainty after getting dumped outside. Tracing with (some degree of) certainty is pretty much exactly what a tracking dog does - you give it a scent and it finds stuff that smells the same. This is not all that different.

    • by tchdab1 ( 164848 )

      How long until implanted sensors are reporting traces from people who walk through doors touching doorknobs and push-plates, elevator buttons, ATM or credit card keypads, dragging their shoes over sensing tiles, etc., with many of their traces being associated with the phones in their pockets identified via bluetooth/wifi/cellular emissions.
      Or is someone already doing this?

      • Maybe it's time to invest in producers of latex and nitrile gloves.

        • But those gloves will have the same chemicals on them if you store them around you and handle them with your chemhands... Not to mention the fact that, as a glove user, that will just further single you out...

          It would seem like the best approach would be to either:

          A) emulate what someone else does completely or
          B) do random stuff every single day so that your chemicals are constantly changing

          Neither of which sound very viable to me for anything more than extremely short terms.

      • Just start worrying when Apple removes the speaker and replaces it with a mass spectrometer.... courage!

    • Forgotten phones... Did the assassin inspect the victim s phone? Was this found phone used to commit a crime? Are you SURE it is YOUR phone and not hers? Who was using all these discarded phones?
  • by itsme1234 ( 199680 ) on Tuesday November 15, 2016 @03:15AM (#53287547)

    analysis of someone's phone could be a boon both to healthcare professionals, and the police. "You can narrow down male versus female

    • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

      What would Bruce, er Kate Jenner think?

    • You can narrow down male versus female

      Sounds like it'll be useful on the internets. Can we get this built into Apple touchpads, please?

  • by ctrl-alt-canc ( 977108 ) on Tuesday November 15, 2016 @03:25AM (#53287575)
    ...with a Samsung Galaxy Notes 7! This smartphone has been carefully designed with privacy in mind: it incorporates a very low level phone formatting mode to erase completely not only data, but also chemical substances that could compromise user's privacy.
    • ...with a Samsung Galaxy Notes 7! This smartphone has been carefully designed with privacy in mind: it incorporates a very low level phone formatting mode to erase completely not only data, but also chemical substances that could compromise user's privacy.

      Well done, sir!

    • The only problem with Samsung's implementation is that they haven't got the timing and the conditions for erasing quite right yet. Well, it's a start. One day they'll nail it... and it'll be a REAL blast!

  • All these latest articles seem like preparing us for the inevitable.

    "Oh so you like privacy, burner phones and shit?, look what we have come up with, cool right? right."

    This certainly making the creepiness great again.
  • Hey everyone, I have a new startup and I'm looking to get funded. We're going to provide smartphone recovery services based on chemical signature. Just register your unique chemical signature, and if your phone ever gets lost, we'll find it for you. All your information will be protected with military-grade encryption. Join us and help change the world by making it a better place!

    * First round of funding has already been started by In-Q-Tel.
  • by HideyoshiJP ( 1392619 ) on Tuesday November 15, 2016 @05:36AM (#53287853)
    They're going to find fecal matter, aren't they?
  • by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Tuesday November 15, 2016 @07:07AM (#53288085)
    Till a 'study' with a sample size of 39 is used by a prosecuting attorney as 'fact' and the plebe of a public defender rolls under it and does not contest. Juries love forensic 'experts' makes things look a bit more like the CSI drivel they watch.
  • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

    "they swabbed the mobile phone and right hand..."

    So, do the tadpoles interfere with the imagery?

  • The chemical traces *anywhere* in my house or on my person (take that how you desire) will reveal even more about my lifestyle! I would probably just answer any question asked anyway.
  • If you have access to someone's phone, and a legitimate reason to ask, the phone company can easily give you their identity based on the phone's MEID and SIM card information. If it's a burner phone, you can still get more information about how/where it was purchased in a much shorter time than any of this information will provide about the person.

  • by tungstencoil ( 1016227 ) on Tuesday November 15, 2016 @09:20AM (#53288507)
    I was intrigued (I suppose that I still am) until the comment about sunscreen and being outdoorsy. Herein lies the danger of such things, but I assume it is poor journalism rather than poor science (or, at least, I hope the scientists aren't concluding this).

    You see, I wear sunscreen. Religiously. I am not terribly "outdoorsy". I am paranoid about skin cancer (runs in the family) and wrinkles (I'm a bit vain, what can I say).

    I think what they meant to say is, given a population with certain characteristics, one can infer certain probabilities about the population. While this is interesting in a population, it's also the same horse s#!t that results in me getting Facebook ads centered around marijuana because I align closely with libertarians (but I don't smoke pot. At all). I long for the day when our marketing overlords start sending me phone ads for paddle boarding or tennis or outdoor yoga because I wear sunscreen. It's so much easier to tune out stuff that has zero relevance.
    • >> they use sunscreen...tend to be outdoorsy

      Must be a sunbelt thing. Up here, people who smell like gun oil and mosquito spray are more likely to be "outdoorsy."
    • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

      paddle boarding

      My brain: ... paddle boarding ... is that one of those torture methods? ... wait, and as a hobby? ... no wonder they're not getting the right advertising ... that one might be a while ... oh, wait.

      Apparently I need more coffee.

    • I'm super 'outdoorsy,' but I refuse to use sunscreen.

      A growing group of doctors and nutritionists believe the hyper-vigilant attitude to using sunscreen in the USA is actually hurting us more than helping. They cite a lack of vitamin D3 is more dangerous than the damage the sun could/can cause during daily exposure.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    But I work in chemistry and microbiology. Might be neat to see what they derive from that.

  • Sounds like something that can be done with any personal item someone keeps on themselves all of the time including pocketbooks, baseball caps, glasses, jackets, etc....
  • Really, no thanks. May you all fall into the sea along with all your research.
  • Condoms for cell phones! The new iDOM...protection for using your phone. The new GalaxyDOM....explosive results!
  • I'm sure in a lot of cases you could also learn a lot from using a black light to examine the phone... :-)

  • All they're gonna get from mine is pizza and mac n' cheese.

  • Once sniff of your ass and your dog knows more about what you've been up to than your spouse, your boss, and the NSA combined.

  • If your phone has micro bits of cocaine or heroin on it is it enough to get a conviction? After all, it is possession. And if your child goes to school and micro amounts of dope can be found on their skin or clothing should the home be raided? This technology just might create some serious social discomfort. What's a criminal to do ?

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