Molecular Traces On Your iPhone Screen Reveal A Scary Amount Of Personal Information

Your iPhone contains a huge amount of information about who you are and what sort of lifestyle you lead ― but not just in the contents of your apps and photos. Even on its physical surface, your phone contains information that can paint a fairly complete picture of your lifestyle. 

By sampling the molecular traces left on smartphones, a group of scientists was able to create “lifestyle sketches” of each phone’s user, including information about diet, use of personal hygiene products, use of pharmaceuticals, health status and locations visited.

Molecular traces “will reveal the types of soaps, lotions, shampoo, make-up, food ― such as vegetarian versus meat-eater or spicy foods ― type of drinks, medications, even materials of clothing one uses,” Dr. Pieter Dorrestein, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post. “Because our reference databases and analysis infrastructure, we can right now only annotate 2 percent of the data. But as this knowledge increases, the resolution of lifestyle analysis will also improve.”

This method of sampling could one day be used in a range of real-life scenarios, including airport screening, criminal profiling, and monitoring of medication adherence ― and that’s just the beginning. 

For the study, published Nov. 14 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers swabbed the phones and the right hands of 39 healthy adult volunteers in several different locations. Using a technique called mass spectrometry, which measures the characteristics of molecules by converting them to ions, they identified and analyzed molecules from nearly 500 samples. 

We could tell if a person is likely female, uses high-end cosmetics, dyes her hair, drinks coffee, prefers beer over wine, likes spicy food, is being treated for depression.”

This information was used to create a personalized lifestyle profile for each phone, which revealed usage of things like anti-depressants, anti-fungal skin creams, hair-loss treatments, and eye drops. The profiles also picked up things like citrus, caffeine, herbs and spices. Some of the traces were months old, suggesting phones can provide a fairly through lifestyle sketch. 

The traces allowed researchers to make extrapolations about a person’s lifestyle, determining things like whether the person has a healthy diet, whether they’re a smoker, and whether they spend a lot of time outside. And, as Dorrestein noted, this is based on only 2 percent of the available data. One day, these profiles could be much more complete. 

This type of molecular information is transferred primarily via touch, but also from surfaces upon which you put down your phone, the study’s authors explained. The researchers are extending their investigation to keys, wallets and other personal items to see if they might obtain similar results. 

“By analyzing the molecules they’ve left behind on their phones, we could tell if a person is likely female, uses high-end cosmetics, dyes her hair, drinks coffee, prefers beer over wine, likes spicy food, is being treated for depression, wears sunscreen and bug spray ― and therefore likely spends a lot of time outdoors ― all kinds of things,” study author Dr. Amina Bouslimani said in a statement. “This is the kind of information that could help an investigator narrow down the search for an object’s owner.”

With further research, molecular tracing could one day be put to good use in forensics and criminal profiling, Bouslimani suggested.

“With our approach, one can create a profile of the lifestyle of a person to narrow down a subject pool,” Dorrestein said. “Then, other hard evidence such as DNA or fingerprints will need to be linked to the actual person.”

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