Police Hope 3D Printed Fingers Will Unlock Murder Victim's Phone

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on July 22, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As technology becomes more sophisticated, the police too are increasingly creative. Michigan authorities, for example, recently commissioned a set of 3D printer fingers to unlock a murder victim's smart phone.

The police believe that the phone holds information about the crime, Fusion reports. Keeping in mind the difficulties of the FBI wrangling with Apple over defendant phone privacy, the Michigan authorities came up with a very creative workaround: copying the victim's fingers in the hopes of unlocking the phone.

Copy Cats

The police turned to Anil Jain, a professor at Michigan State University, for help with the phone. The professor works on biometric identifiers like facial and fingerprint recognition technologies. Jain's job is to make these difficult to replicate, yet that is exactly what the police asked him to do in order to help them solve a murder.

They believe that the victim's phone holds clues as to his death, yet they don't have his passcode and can't access the phone without it or his (living) fingerprint. Professor Jain created a replica of the victims' fingers -- all ten since it is not known which he used to lock his device -- using a scan of the victim's fingerprints that were taken while he was alive.

But printed plastic fingers alone cannot unlock a phone. Fingerprint reading technologies rely on the conductivity of skin to close tiny electrical circuits and plastic fingers cannot replicate that action. So the professor coated the fingers in a thin layer of metallic particles that allow the fingerprint scanner to read them.

Although the solution sounds very clever indeed, Jain's efforts may be in vain. Some phones will ask for a passcode if a biometric lock has not been employed for 48 hours, Fusion reports, so the Michigan police may not be able to read the victim's phone even if the 3D finger technology will work.

Constitutional Issues

When the phone to be searched is that of the murder victim and not someone accused, there's less concern about constitutionality. But both the Fourth and Fifth Amendment are implicated by these locked phone cases, says law and security expert Bryan Choi. Under the Fourth Amendment, people are protected from unreasonable search and seizure and under the Fifth from self-incrimination.

The quest to enter the victim's phone is meant to uncover information about who may have killed him, so self-incrimination isn't an issue. But as the FBI's struggle with Apple over a deceased defendant's locked phone showed, privacy issues are hotly debated and not yet generally resolved in the courts.

Choi believes phones should be treated by courts as extensions of our minds, arguing that our new devices are more personal than any other product we've had in the past. But as Fusion points out, "That point of view would require courts to recognize that we are all cyborgs, whose minds live in part on our phones."


If you have been accused of a crime, protect your constitutional rights. Speak to a criminal defense attorney today.

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