Computer Keyboards Pose Security Risk
Human hands leave bacterial fingerprint that can identify the user…
A new study has shown that the microbes left behind on a computer keyboard form a bacterial fingerprint that can be analyzed to identify the user.
While the findings may one day lead to effective new forensic techniques, they also impose further security risks on typists dealing with classified and personal information.
Human Fingers Bacterial Fingerprint
In the new study, microbiologists Rob Knight and Noah Fierer of the University of Colorado, Boulder, swabbed three different keyboards and nine mice for bacteria, then compared the genomic variation between the communities to deduce whose hands had been touching what.
From the results, the people were clearly identifiable due to the bacterial communities they’d left behind.
Knight and his colleagues wrote in the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists:
“The results demonstrate that bacterial DNA can be recovered from relatively small surfaces, that the composition of the keyboard-associated communities are distinct across the three keyboards, and that individuals leave unique bacterial ‘fingerprints’ on their keyboards,”
The Human Microbiome Project was started with the aim of understanding the relationships between bacteria and ourselves. Being just a few years old, the new results are the latest to aid Microbiome science by showing the variety and complexity of the bacterial communities living in a variety of different human ecosystems such as the skin, gut and saliva.
“If humans are thought of as a composite of microbial and human cells, the human genetic landscape as an aggregate of the genes in the human genome and the microbiome, and human metabolic features as a blend of human and microbial traits, then the picture that emerges is one of a human ‘supra-organism’,” argued a 2007 Nature paper lead-authored by Peter Turnbaugh, a Harvard microbiologist.
However, despite the excitement, scientists are only just beginning to understand the bacterial community variations within a single body and between individuals. Some experts, like Jacques Ravel, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland who works on both the human microbiome and more general forensic science, have voiced their doubts as to the actual forensic benefits of the new findings:
“It’s a nice piece of work but the forensic aspect as far as I’m concerned is the weakest,” Ravel concluded.
To become an effective forensic technique, researchers will need a lot more evidence the human microbes don’t transform over time, and that bacteria transferred to keyboards and other touch-interfaces endure few changes.
Ravel explained that forensic scientists will also just need more data on variations in skin microbiomes to reduce the uncertainty associated with identifications:
“When we do a human genotyping for forensics, we can tell you this is the person and there is one chance in X billion that it is someone else…
“Here, they don’t have that power. They can’t tell you that. The statistics support is still very weak. You can’t bring that in the courtroom.”
There is one forensic niche, though, where the microbiome could eventually come in handy: identical twins. A 2008 study
found that identical twins showed substantial gut bacteria variation. Skin microbiomes could be similar.
“Even identical twins harbor substantially different microbial communities, suggesting that the collective genomes of our microbial symbionts may be more personally identifying than our own human genomes,” the Colorado researchers conclude.
Cyber Clean Keyboard Cleaner
With much research to be done, it may still be sometime before scientists look at how effective bacteria preventing solutions – which become popular following the outbreaks of bird and swine flu – for touch interfaces are at removing all traces of human contact.
Tools such as the Swiss-made Cyber Clean claims to kills germ and remove dirt thanks to its special viscosity and elasticity, but despite the company’s claims, there is little evidence out there to prove how well these methods really work.
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