Secretions on your phone reveal your secrets

Chemistry laughs at your strong passwords

Mobile phones may reveal as much about their owners as the data inside them, a finding that complicates device privacy issues.

In a paper [PDF] published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that by sampling chemicals deposited on mobile phones through regular usage, they could learn about the device owner's health and habits.

The filth on mobile devices has received considerable attention over the years, giving rise to reports that toilet seats are cleaner than iPads and spawning an industry of touchscreen-disinfection products.

A 2013 report published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research says that "there are several reports showing that [mobile] devices may then serve as vectors for transmission of pathogens to patients." It cites recent studies indicating that between 44 per cent and 95 per cent of mobile communication devices are contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.

But beyond DNA, fingerprints, and bacteria, mobile device users deposit a wide variety of chemicals that have potential forensic value.

"Using a chemical composite recovered from a swab of a phone, as a representative personal belonging, we can provide insights into personal lifestyle profile by predicting the kind of beauty product the individual uses, the food he/she eats, the medications he/she takes, or the places he/she has been," the paper says.

With the help of mass spectrometry, the researchers were able to identify chemicals associated with skin inflammation medication, soap, cosmetics, hair loss medication, antifungal medication, antidepressant medication, sunscreen, coffee or tea consumption, and mosquito repellents.

char from Lifestyle chemistries from phones for individual profiling

The technique "is not limited to phones – it can be used with other objects such as keys, wallets, and computers," said Pieter Dorrestein, UC San Diego professor and coauthor of the paper, in an email to The Register. With regard to clothing, he said, further research needs to be done.

The researchers used mobile phones because people spend a lot of time with them and handle the devices frequently, ensuring many opportunities to transfer skin molecules through contact.

The report authors argue that mass-spectral analysis of touched objects has the potential to complement traditional approaches to forensic science like fingerprint analysis. But in order for the technique to become broadly useful, someone needs to start tracking molecular lifestyle signatures in a database.

"Such a database would not only benefit forensics (tracking a subject) or a terrorist tracing (useful for the military), but [would] also be useful for toxicology, as it would be a noninvasive way to measure environmental exposures, such as exposure to plasticizers and other pollutants," the paper says.

If only someone in a position of authority took an interest in keeping track of that sort of thing. ®

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