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Busted! Cops use fingerprint pulled from a WhatsApp photo to ID drug dealer

Apr 16, 20184 mins
Investigation and ForensicsSecurity

Police used a photo sent via WhatsApp and a “pioneering fingerprint technique” to ultimately secure drug convictions against 11 people.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Let’s say you are holding something in your hand and snap a picture with your phone. Although the object you’re holding doesn’t quite fill your entire palm, you might not think part of your pinky finger showing could get you busted. Well, think again, as a “groundbreaking” technique of matching fingerprints found in photos “is the future” of how cops will catch criminals. It’s changing how law enforcement looks at social media images for potential evidence.

While police have long used fingerprints in criminal investigations, in a new twist, cops used one photo sent via WhatsApp and a “pioneering fingerprint technique” to ultimately secure drug convictions against 11 people.

How the police identified the drug dealer

A bust resulted in the police getting hold of a phone that had a WhatsApp message and image of ecstasy pills in a person’s palm. The message read: “For sale – Skype and Ikea-branded ecstasy pills…are you interested?”

The phone was sent to South Wales Police where the photo showing the middle and bottom portion of a pinky was enhanced. As for fingerprint identification, the BBC reported that “a search of the national database did not bring a match” as “when offenders give fingerprints, it is just the top part taken — with the middle and bottom part only occasionally left.”

Here’s where it gets a bit confusing, as a different BBC article stated that “other evidence meant officers had an idea who they believed was behind the drugs operation.”

Although that makes it sound like tips from locals about “a large number of visitors to one address” was the real way cops found the guy whose partial pinky was in the photo, Dave Thomas of the South Wales Police’s scientific support unit told the BBC, “While the scale and quality of the photograph proved a challenge, the small bits were enough to prove he was the dealer.”

In fact, according to the South Wales Police press release, “A boastful drug dealer” was “caught red-handed after a pioneering technique was used to identify his fingerprints in a photograph he sent showing off his supply.”

Staff from the unit’s specialist imaging team were able to enhance a picture of a hand holding a number of tablets, which was taken from a mobile phone, before fingerprint experts were able to positively identify that the hand was that of Elliott Morris.

Speaking about the pioneering techniques used in the case, Dave Thomas, forensic operations manager at the Scientific Support Unit, added: “Specialist staff within the JSIU fully utilized their expert image-enhancing skills which enabled them to provide something that the unit’s fingerprint identification experts could work. Despite being provided with only a very small section of the fingerprint which was visible in the photograph, the team were able to successfully identify the individual.”

Detective Inspector Dean Taylor told the BBC, “We knew Elliott was handling drugs of a similar type, but we didn’t know who was holding the bags in the photograph. He was linked by his fingerprint which also linked him to the messages and showed he was sending the supply.”

Thomas pointed out how 80 percent of people have mobile phones and use them to snap photos that the cops can “download and enhance.” Other cops are now looking through social media images, as well as images in seized phones, for potential fingerprinting identification evidence.

Thomas painted this picture for the BBC. “We want to be in a position where there is a burglary at 20:30, we can scan evidence and by 20:45 be waiting at the offender’s front door and arrest them arriving home with the swag. That will work through remote transmission — scanning evidence at the scene and sending it back quickly for a match. It’s the future. We are not there yet but it could significantly enhance the ability of the local bobbies to arrest people very quickly.”

As cryptographer and Johns Hopkins Computer Science Assistant Professor Matthew Green pointed out, “And law enforcement is worried about ‘going dark.’”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.