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Cautionary Tale: Visible Fingertips in Cellphone Pictures Can Get You Arrested

by Steve Horn

For those in the U.S. who enjoy taking photos on their cellphones, particularly of illicit activities or potentially illegal ones, the South Wales Police force has sent a warning shot across the Atlantic to beware. Or else.

In March in South Wales, U.K., a kingpin of a cannabis and ecstasy trafficking ring was arrested after photos of ecstacy which he took on his cellphone and sent in a text message on WhatsApp were traced back to him via his fingerprint marks that could be seen on enlarged images of that photo. In total, 11 people were arrested as members of the ring.

In South Wales, law enforcement officials there said it was the first time this particular technique had been used to support an arrest. It is an investigation which began with neighbors calling to say it appeared that suspicious activity was occurring at a house with more-than-normal foot traffic coming into and out of it. And the arrest phase of it has ended with the tracking down of the 28-year-old leader of the pack, Elliot Morris.

Dave Thomas, forensic operations manager at the Scientific Support Unit, said in a press release put out by the South Wales Police force that, “Specialist staff within the JSIU fully utilised their expert image-enhancing skills which enabled them to provide something that the unit’s fingerprint identification experts could work,” adding that “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.”

Cellphone Fingerprints Cross Atlantic

The publication Vice Motherboard further reported that, though this is a story about an arrest in the UK, fingerprint traces found via photos taken on a cellphone have also been used for an arrest in the U.S., as well. In the U.S., this has ensued in the domain of possession of child pornography arrests.

Vice pointed to the 2015 arrest and subsequent charges brought against a man based on photos he took of himself performing sexual acts on a one-year-old child. Though his face was obscured, law enforcement officers were able to see sufficient details of the ridges of his fingertips in the photos he snapped to identify him.

“It’s kind of groundbreaking—but it’s actually really simple,” said Lt. Joe Giasone, of the Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation Section in Sarasota County, Florida, in a story published by Forensic Magazine. “In one of the pictures, you could zoom in and get really good detail on his finger.”

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department is not alone in utilizing this groundbreaking technique to identify a suspect. Just months earlier in 2015, federal charges were brought against 24 year-old Tyler Seevers (USA v. Seevers, 2:15-cr-00043-DWA) in February 2015 for sexually lurid photographs he took of a three-year old girl and her older sister in May and July 2014. In August, the plea agreement reached between the U.S. Department of Justice and Seevers showed that he was originally busted via his fingerprints which were seen within the photos he took of the young children.

“Seevers produced sexually explicit photographs of a female child, three years of age, using an iPod Touch. The iPod Touch was turned over to law enforcement by the victim’s mother who had discovered the photographs of her daughter,” detailed the DOJ press release. “Forensic analysis of the contents of the iPod Touch revealed images of both the 3-year-old and her older sister. One such sexually exploitive photograph depicted the ridges of the photographer’s fingertips. A fingerprint analyst with the Pennsylvania State Police was able to identify Seevers’ hand as that depicted in the photograph.”

Then in 2017 in another child pornography case, the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab in Austin utilized fingerprints seen in a photo of a man molesting a nine-year-old child.

“In July 2015, the Texas Office of Attorney General submitted a digital photograph of an unknown suspect exploiting a child to the DPS Crime Lab in Austin. The only evidence of the suspect in the photo were fingers on one hand,” the Texas Department of Public Safety explained the details of the case in a July 2017 press release. “Hall, the Latent Automated Fingerprint Identification System Supervisor, and Blackburn, the Latent Prints Supervisor, combined efforts to use the photograph to match the fingerprints to a suspect, which ultimately led to an arrest by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in August of 2015.”

For their work, the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab received the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (“FBI”) Biometric Identification Award in 2017 for the best biometric work of the year done by a law enforcement unit. Robert Bossick, Jr., the man who took the photos, was sentenced to 50 years in prison by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia (USA v. Bossick Jr., 1:16-cr-00001-JRH-BKE) for production and possession of child pornography. In the process of searching his phone, law enforcement officials also found text messages exchanged via the app Kik, which resulted in more leads for their ongoing criminal probe.

Bossick’s case was the first of its type in which the fingerprint seen in a cellphone picture was matched with a fingerprint stored in the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database. That database serves as a centralized storage hub of biometric information collected from U.S. citizens.

So, while to date this new technique of finding fingerprint traces through smartphone photos has been used to bust drug traffickers and child pornographers, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to envision it being used as a means of establishing probable cause for arrests of all sorts of potential criminal charges. Put another way, think twice or maybe even thrice before taking photographs on your smartphone which can and will used against you in a court of law.


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