Mass Spectrometry for Surveillance

Yet another way to collect personal data on people without their knowledge or consent: "Lifestyle chemistries from phones for individual profiling":

Abstract: Imagine a scenario where personal belongings such as pens, keys, phones, or handbags are found at an investigative site. It is often valuable to the investigative team that is trying to trace back the belongings to an individual to understand their personal habits, even when DNA evidence is also available. Here, we develop an approach to translate chemistries recovered from personal objects such as phones into a lifestyle sketch of the owner, using mass spectrometry and informatics approaches. Our results show that phones' chemistries reflect a personalized lifestyle profile. The collective repertoire of molecules found on these objects provides a sketch of the lifestyle of an individual by highlighting the type of hygiene/beauty products the person uses, diet, medical status, and even the location where this person may have been. These findings introduce an additional form of trace evidence from skin-associated lifestyle chemicals found on personal belongings. Such information could help a criminal investigator narrowing down the owner of an object found at a crime scene, such as a suspect or missing person.

News article.

Posted on November 16, 2016 at 7:40 AM • 21 Comments

Comments

George H.H. MitchellNovember 16, 2016 7:50 AM

At the moment, this sounds like it has about as much credibility as such earlier triumphs of forensic "science" as identifying batches of bullets manufactured at the same time by miniscule variations in the makeup of the lead; likewise carpet fibers; and arson fires by patterns of smoke smudges.

Clive RobinsonNovember 16, 2016 9:09 AM

@ George H.H. Mitchell,

... sounds like it has about as much credibility as such earlier triumphs of forensic "science" as identifying batches of bullets...

You forgot to mention nitrates, from preserved meats (charcuterie) and the nitro-cellulose found on many common houshold objects such as playing cards etc...

As I've often said "forensics is not science, as it trys and often fails to argue back from effect to cause". But that won't stop "expert hearsay" from dubious persons being presented as thousand fine gold science... Often I just wish the judges would lock them up on perjury charges.

mbNovember 16, 2016 9:52 AM

This is interesting, but there are already much more invasive potential uses of mass spec surveillance. A long time ago I worked in environmental lab, one thing they did was analyze waste water for compliance with the regulations (epa methods 624 & 625 in particular). We would pick up acetaminophen, caffeine, aspirin, etc. in the samples. Now the samples we analyzed were from industry, so to even see those compounds in the background of all the other gunk is pretty remarkable. If you were to use it on a household's effluent - you could find out quite a bit. I am always somewhat surprised I have not seen this done.

Ian MasonNovember 16, 2016 9:56 AM

Buried in the depths of the paper is the sample size. Thirty-nine subjects, yes 39. I'll guess, because the paper doesn't offer any analysis, that is 39 subjects in the 19-25 years old bracket, urban middle class Americans. And that totally represents everybody in the whole world, and validates this piece of junk forensics perfectly. Somewhere in Langley or Washington there is someone already planning to use this to target assassinations so the sloppy science is fine, it doesn't matter at all, right?

TedNovember 16, 2016 11:54 AM

According to the research, a database with lifestyle biometrics does not currently exist, and would take a significant community effort. Could such data be adequately protected? Since biometric records are classified as PII, there would seem to be a lot more involved. This April 2010 NIST publication provides guidance on PII confidentiality impact levels, confidentiality safeguards, and incident response for breaches involving PII.

NIST Guide to Protecting the Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
http://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/Legacy/SP/nistspecialpublication800-122.pdf

OtterNovember 16, 2016 3:49 PM

Whether it works or not, whether the expert lies or not, it will be expensive ... which is another way of saying the selected suspect has no defense.

Clive RobinsonNovember 16, 2016 4:41 PM

@ George H.H. Mitchell,

... sounds like it has about as much credibility as such earlier triumphs of forensic "science" as identifying batches of bullets...

You forgot to mention nitrates, from preserved meats (charcuterie) and the nitro-cellulose found on many common houshold objects such as playing cards etc...

As I've often said "forensics is not science, as it trys and often fails to argue back from effect to cause". But that won't stop "expert hearsay" from dubious persons being presented as thousand fine gold science... Often I just wish the judges would lock them up on perjury charges.

RonKNovember 17, 2016 2:13 AM

Sounds like something which does have a valid use case (law enforcement using it as an aid in locating a criminal, who after being caught, can be convicted using sufficient valid evidence from other sources), which will unfortunately immediately be abused (like many other posters say) as valid trial evidence in and of itself.

RogerNovember 17, 2016 3:19 AM

"Mass Spectrometry for Surveillance"

Hardly "surveillance." This is a slow, very expensive technique that can only be applied after getting physical access to personal possessions. Quite apart from being unproven, it would be completely useless for surveillance.

And around here, they don't even authorize fingerprinting for burglary unless more than $10K was taken -- not cost-effective, apparently. I can't see mass spec getting used for anything smaller than homicide.

So, more of a "serious crimes investigative technique."

Chris WNovember 17, 2016 4:05 AM

@Roger

In other words: A potentially useful tool in the repertoire of cold-case investigators. But the profile gained using mass spec forensics is just that, to aid investigation, not as evidence. On it's own it shouldn't even be enough to get a search warrant.
It'll be important for the courts to affirm the legal boundaries and limitations... just look at polygraphs for an example of things going horribly wrong.

At the moment it's cost prohibitive, but that won't always be the case. There's already tech in development to quickly generate a dna profile from a dna sample using nanotech. Getting a preliminary chemical profile of other samples in the field would just be the next natural evolution.

{}November 17, 2016 1:58 PM

I'm reminded of the 1980s claim that most banknotes in circulaton in the US had measurable amounts of cocaine on them.

We're F'dNovember 17, 2016 2:18 PM

@mb - indeed.

The natural progression, which I presume is actually secret history, is no expectation of privacy for what you flush down the toilet, or throw in trash that isn't destined for your own personal wealthy-elite landfill.

I used to be surprised. Then I became suspicious.

Welcome to the new world of 'as much expectation of privacy as you can afford countermeasures'. Trump rules.

And no, jack booted thugs aren't what you should expect. What you should expect is to be marginalized by super predators that have no quams about maximally leveraging such privacy invasion to further their own personal agendas.

anonymousNovember 19, 2016 5:03 PM

This is about digital information (so as so-called "metadata") which can be combined with the biologic information to violate human rights laws more than ever before;
The PATRIOT Act (Persecuting Americans That Read I.T. Oriented Tabloids Act) violates 1st and 4th amendments of the Bill of rights; https://www.linuxjournal.com/content/nsa-linux-journal-extremist-forum-and-its-readers-get-flagged-extra-surveillance https://daserste.ndr.de/panorama/aktuell/NSA-targets-the-privacy-conscious,nsa230.html
Violating the Bill of Rights is insurrection, which is a form of treason. The death penalty is often advocated towards traitors. Rule 41 changes set for Dec.1 2016 are far more radical and militant than the human rights abuses of the PATRIOT Act.
Call your senator and leave a message asking him or her to support the "stop mass hacking act".

MikeANovember 19, 2016 5:45 PM

"Call your Senator..."

Well, not _my_ Senator(s). The newly elected one is a former D.A., and the other is Dianne (never met a bit of Law Enforcement Overreach she didn't like) Feinstein.

What was that about government _for_ the people?

Hm, maybe Boxer will have a "Death Bed Conversion" and Do The Right Thing.

A Nonny BunnyNovember 25, 2016 2:45 PM

@Clive Robinson

As I've often said "forensics is not science, as it trys and often fails to argue back from effect to cause".
Err, doesn't every science try to argue from effect (observation) to cause (natural law/theory)?

Clive RobinsonNovember 26, 2016 3:11 PM

@ A Nonny Bunny,

Err, doesn't every science try to argue from effect (observation) to cause (natural law/theory)?

Not quite... Science is about prediction by "law", that is with X known inputs the result Y should be reliably predictable by the law prior to the event, hence X being the cause Y being the effect.

The problem is that different X's can give the same or sufficiently similar Y's which means going backwards can be problematical at best (some argue that the law of thermodynamics applies in that you can only reliably go in one direction...)

Overly simplified how we get to the "laws of nature" is you come up with an idea (possibly from observation) the hypothesis and then test it in as many ways as you can to disprove the idea. If and only if it survives all the tests that you and others throw at it, and no one has come up with a simpler or more fundemental argument, then it starts down the path of being accepted and might end up becoming a law (most do not).

Sir Issac has be credited with the principles of the "scientific method" which currently has two loops, the inner of which is "Observe, hypothesis, test" (rinse wash and repeate). But like many things it was an idea the time of which was due the history of which is still changing both prior and post Newton.

ab praeceptisNovember 26, 2016 3:46 PM

Clive Robinson

For the sake of fairness: A Nonny Bunny isn't far off. Theory of science (plus ethics of science, etc) is a large field and what you mentioned is only one of multiple major schools of thought.

It's a rather pragmatic one, more describing what actually happens out there than what science is or is about. One might add that it's a rather questionable one.

It *sounds* very rigorous but sometimes isn't. I see that not too rarely in Astrophysics (which, btw. has become a rather funny field often producing konjunctive new, many "would", "could", "might be" (non-)news).

For the sake of an example I posit that our galaxy cluster is rather special as in all other galaxies celestian bodies tend to be cubes or pyramids. Following the a.m. paradigm I undertake many attempts to disprove that hypothesis, which must fail for obvious reasons, namely that our means to disprove it are very limited - et voila, a cosmos of mostly cubes and pyramids is born.

I'm so unfriendly with that (not you but that school of tought) because it has much in common with marketing. Sounds great at first sight but ...

One of the reasons I happen to have a certain interest in that problem field is because actually we have similar paradigms in our field, for instance unit testing. The problem with those well intended lottery approaches is that they seem to ignore a lot and that they are by far more subjective than the PR suggests.

Let me close with a funny remark: There is no caus[e|ality] and funnily it was mother nature who taught us a lesson there that is btw linked to what we just talk about. Causality, at least as understood by us, is based on not one but 2 assumptions that have largely gone unchecked, namely that time a) exists and b) is more or less linear.
From todays understanding time seems to exist only in a roughly human perceivable scale, which btw opens a very interesting field, namely the question (that many mathematicians know and love so much (well, ...)) whether we are perceiving time or whether we are actually creating it (or something that is the basis for what we perceive as time).

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