A few months ago, Apple was embroiled in a high-publicized legal battle with the FBI over mobile security. If you recall, the controversy began after Apple refused to create a custom version of iOS that would have enabled authorities to bypass the lockscreen on the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. In defending Apple’s position, Tim Cook boldly said that the FBI wanted Apple to create the “software equivalent of cancer.”
Ultimately, the legal dispute fizzled out after the FBI managed to purchase software from a third-party that enabled it to bypass the lockscreen without Apple’s assistance. With that as a backdrop, we recently stumbled upon a report detailing a novel way that law enforcement authorities in Michigan managed to access a locked iPhone of a murder victim, without any help from Apple or even having to lay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a third-party.
According to a report from Fusion, Police in Michigan recently needed access to the locked iPhone belonging to a murder victim. Naturally, the authorities believe that information on the phone may provide them clues and help them solve the ongoing murder investigation.
Initially thwarted by the Touch ID system the user had set up on his phone, the police did not reach out to Apple but instead contacted a Michigan State University Computer Science professor named Anil Jain who had substantial expertise in biometric related technologies. In turn, Jain, along with help from a PhD student named Sunpreet Arora, utilized 3D printing to create a replica version of the victim’s fingerprints based on prints the police already had on file. And because authorities aren’t sure which digit the victim used to access his phone, Jain has been busy creating replicas of all of the victim’s fingers.
But of course, that’s just part one of the process. Because Touch ID on the iPhone is only receptive to an object with electrical current, a dummy replica of a fingerprint, no matter how accurate, is not sufficient to access the device in and of itself.
That said, there is a solution in the works.
Most fingerprint readers used on phones are capacitive, which means they rely on the closing of tiny electrical circuits to work. The ridges of your fingers cause some of these circuits to come in contact with each other, generating an image of the fingerprint. Skin is conductive enough to close these circuits, but the normal 3D printing plastic isn’t, so Arora coated the 3D printed fingers in a thin layer of metallic particles so that the fingerprint scanner can read them.
It’s not a foolproof method yet. Arora is still refining the technology, and they haven’t yet given the fingers back to the police to try and unlock the victim’s phone. But Arora said that in a few weeks, once he’s tested the fingers enough in the lab, he’ll hand them over. Then the police will try to use 3D printed models of a dead man’s fingers to unlock his phone.
All in all, that’s a pretty clever workaround, but the entire process might be all for naught. Remember, iPhones that have been turned off for more than 48 hours require a passcode for full access to the device.
Which, of course, will simply bring the police back to square one and in the same position as the FBI was in a few months ago.