Fingerprints left at the scene of a crime can help law enforcement identify a criminal, but cops in Wales recently used a fingerprint shown in a WhatsApp photo as part of evidence that led to the conviction of 11 drug traffickers.
Dave Thomas of South Wales Police described the technique of using fingerprints from a photo as “groundbreaking,” telling the BBC it would now analyze images more closely when it finds them on smartphones seized during investigations.
In this case, cops examined a phone it found in a home that it raided in the Welsh town of Bridgend following a tipoff about possible drug-related activity at the address.
The phone’s WhatsApp messages went back several months and turned up some important evidence.
“It had a number of texts such as, ‘What do you want to buy?’ on it,” Thomas told the BBC. “There was then the photograph of the hand holding pills that seemed like it was sent to potential customers saying, ‘These are my wares, I’m selling these’.”
The photo showed the middle and bottom part of the suspect’s finger, though not the top part that’s recorded for the U.K.’s national database, so in this case the police’s scientific support unit was unable to make a match using the database. But the image of the finger nevertheless revealed enough data to help convict the suspect, with the investigation leading to 10 further convictions.
“While the scale and quality of the photograph proved a challenge, the small bits were enough to prove he was the dealer,” Thomas explained, adding, “It’s now opened the floodgates and when there’s part of a hand on a photograph, officers are sending them in.”
Social media apps have proved popular among criminals selling drugs — so much so, in fact, that Instagram recently started to make a greater effort to block drug-related hashtags.
While the procedure of pulling fingerprint data from photos may be new, police use of social media as part of its crime-busting activities certainly isn’t. Services such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp can provide a wealth of evidence for investigators, with some suspects making it ridiculously easy for cops to track them down.