Thursday, November 17, 2011

You have to use some intelligence with this fingerprinting device


Both CNET (in two articles) and New Scientist are reporting about a device from an English company called Intelligent Fingerprinting. This device uses a fingerprint for two purposes. Unlike other devices that use a fingerprint to make your preferred coffee drink, this device uses your fingerprint to perform a drug tests.

CNET links to a 10 November press release:

Contact: Simon Dunford, press officer
University of East Anglia

Prototype hand-held drug testing device launched
The world's first prototype of a hand-held fingerprint drug testing device has been created by UK technology company Intelligent Fingerprinting.

The unique device detects drugs and other substances from the sweat contained in fingerprints and will enable mobile testing with instant results.

A spin-out of the University of East Anglia (UEA), Intelligent Fingerprinting Ltd is based in the NRP Innovation Centre at the Norwich Research Park. The company developed the prototype with eg technology – a product design, development and engineering consultancy based in Cambridge.

Paul Yates, business development manager at Intelligent Fingerprinting, said: "The launch of this prototype is a significant milestone. There has already been considerable worldwide interest in the use of the technology for testing within a wide range of applications, including criminal justice forensic science, homeland security, and institutional testing such as prisons and workplaces. But the ability of a hand-held device to carry out testing in-situ brings a whole new range of benefits and opportunities."

The device will enable testing of fingerprints for illegal drugs and other substances using disposable cartridges. The samples are quick and easy to collect and do not require specialist handling or biohazard precautions. Because of the imaging of the fingerprint, they have an in-built watertight chain of evidence continuity and are almost impossible to cheat.

The potential uses for the device are wide ranging and cover testing individuals in the workplace - especially in safety critical industries where there is a need to judge whether someone is 'fit for duty' - through to screening drivers at the roadside for drug-driving impairment.

David Russell, CTO of Intelligent Fingerprinting and Professor of Chemistry at UEA's School of Chemistry, said: "The development of the Intelligent Fingerprinting hand-held testing device has been a technological success. Working closely with eg technology we have been able to design a device that carries out the full analysis and imaging of a fingerprint in only a few minutes. The first prototype will be able to test individuals for drugs of abuse but we will be working to widen the range of substances to include other drugs and health markers that are found in fingerprints."

The prototype is scheduled to go into full production in 2012 and the team will work with customers to develop new applications.

Danny Godfrey, director of eg technology, said: "Intelligent Fingerprinting's core intellectual property is fascinating, offering a unique, robust way of linking a test result to the individual. Designing a device to automate their well-defined laboratory process has required input from all of our skill groups – microfluidics, optics, electronics, software, industrial and mechanical design. The release of the prototype is a major milestone towards the unveiling of the production device next year and we're delighted to be part of such an exciting development."

But before we get all excited about the "watertight chain of evidence," let us consider exactly what this shows.

It does NOT show that the person whose fingerprint is being captured is taking illegal drugs.

It DOES show that the person whose fingerprint is being captured has failed a drug test.

There is an important difference.

One term that is often used in the biometric industry is "false positive," or an assertion of a particular connection when no such connection is truly present. The initial identification of Brandon Mayfield as a suspect in the Madrid bombings is an example of a false positive.

False positives are not limited to biometric identification; they can also be found in drug tests. For example, ingestion of poppy seed bagels can result in a false positive for morphine use. has documented several cases in which people lost their jobs (in most cases only temporarily) because of a failed drug test that resulted from eating poppy seed bagels (or a similar item) before the test was conducted.

Now I don't know if the Intelligent Fingerprint system has safeguards against this particular false positive. But even if it does, one has to remember that no one can claim that any particular drug test is 100% accurate. So there is always the possibility that there is a false positive - which means that the test only proves that the person whose fingerprint is taken has failed a drug test, not that the person whose fingerprint is taken is taking drugs.

And I haven't even delved into the entire "fingerprint spoofing" issue - admittedly difficult in this scenario, but in certain cases (such as a corrupt person taking the fingerprints), even this system can be spoofed.

Which just goes to show that you have to be very careful when you use phrases such as "watertight chain of evidence."

Someone's gonna find a leak.
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