- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2007

LONDON — For more than a century, fingerprints have helped to bring criminals to justice. Now, in a development that should help police catch more crooks, scientists have discovered how to coax details of an offender’s lifestyle and health from the prints he or she leaves at a crime scene.

The technique will prove particularly valuable when officers are unable to find a match for a fingerprint on the national database. Currently, if no match is found, the print is useless until a suspect is brought in for questioning.

The new technique will reveal whether an offender smokes, takes drugs, drinks coffee, is using a certain type of medication or has a specific disease. This will help to narrow down the list of potential suspects, saving time and money for the police and securing more convictions.

The technology, being developed at the department of forensic science at King’s College London, highlights the chemical “markers” that are present in tiny ridges of sweat and grease left in a fingerprint on a surface.

People who smoke, take drugs or eat certain foods will leave different markers. Prints washed with a solution that sticks only to the chemicals left by a smoker, for example, can be made to glow bright red, yellow or green.

The team developing the technology with government funding says it can look for hormones to tell whether a suspect is male or female, and will soon be able to identify whether an offender is using a specific medication or has handled explosives.

“We wanted to get more information from the fingerprint about the lifestyle of the person who left it,” said Sue Jickells, a member of the team. “If you could determine if they were taking a specific sort of drug, it could tell you which community to look in.”

Fingerprints have been used as a form of identification for more than 4,000 years, since finger impressions were pressed into the clay surface of Babylonian legal contracts.

Over the centuries, the technique of using the unique patterns of swirls has changed little, but the new technology allows scientists to coax an unprecedented level of information from even the most smudged print.

David Russell, who led the research project at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Britain, said: “Now we have cracked doing it for antibodies against cotinine [a chemical produced in the body as it breaks down nicotine], we can do it for virtually anything that can be found in sweat. We have already managed it with cocaine and caffeine.”

It is hoped that the technique also can help diagnose diseases such as cancer by screening for specific markers produced by an illness and emitted in sweat.

Civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about how the information that is gleaned from fingerprints will be used.

Phil Booth, national coordinator for the British advocacy group No2ID, said: “I have deep concerns that this information could be used to go on fishing expeditions through databases such as medical records. It could throw entirely innocent people under suspicion if they happen to fit a profile.”

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