Police Link Smartphone Hand Photo to Jail Dealer

John Lister's picture

A drug dealer was convicted after his phone revealed his fingerprint. It wasn't from a log-in scanner, but rather an unfortunate side effect of a photo he took.

Police in Wales seized a phone from a property they raided after receiving a tip-off that it was being used to sell drugs. The phone included the app called "WhatsApp," which is a very popular tool used to send private messages to friends.

The app is prevalent among some users because the messages are encrypted in transit, meaning that the company behind WhatsApp is unable to hand over the contents to law enforcement officials even if it wanted to. In this case, that wasn't an issue, as the police were able to access messages stored on the phone.

Drug Photo Had Handy Tip

As well as written messages relating to offers to sell drugs, the app records included a photograph of a hand holding a bag of pills believed to be ecstasy.

While the fingers were partly obscured by the pills and the bag, there was enough of one finger to scan and analyze it on fingerprint software. That was enough to show the hand in question belonged to a man suspected of being behind the drugs operation. That helped break the case and led to the conviction of eleven people, with the ring leader getting an eight-and-a-half year jail sentence.

The police tactic wouldn't have worked in every case, however. The picture only showed the bottom and middle of the finger. However, the police criminal fingerprint database in the UK only stores and analyzes the top section of fingers. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

That means that police wouldn't have been able to use the photograph to search the database in the hopes of finding a suspect. Instead, they were only able to use the photo as evidence because they already had a suspect who they could then fingerprint and compare with the photo.

Deleting Evidence Might Not Work

The case comes at a particularly opportune time as WhatsApp has just changed its setup so that users can now re-download messages and images that they have deleted from their device in the past two to three months. The data remains encrypted on the servers and is not readable until its back on the original device. (Source: wabetainfo.com)

That means police who seized a phone (and were able to bypass any screen locks) could theoretically access messages and images even if the user had deleted them.

What's Your Opinion?

Are you surprised a fingerprint could be read and matched from such a photo? Should there be any restrictions on using such evidence? Were the police right to draw attention to this case or could this act as a warning to criminals to better cover their tracks?

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eric's picture

Criminals will always try to find new, clever ways to get away with crime, and law enforcement will always try to find ways to counter them.
Criminals seem to think this might not apply to the digital age,but it clearly does.