Interview with Program Director Max Houck

What is your current job role and what does this position involve?

My current role is Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Forensic Studies & Justice Program at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The Program teaches forensic investigative techniques and scientific applications in criminal cases, using structured analytic techniques borrowed from the intelligence community to mitigate and reduce bias, and how to improve the criminal justice system and avoid wrongful convictions. I created the Program, teach in it, and conduct research in these areas.

How did you come to work in the field of forensic science?

I became interested in forensic science through taking anthropology courses for my undergraduate minor; I was originally in International Relations and was going to be a translator (Russian and Japanese). Ultimately, bones made more sense than conjugating irregular Russian verbs and I changed majors. In my Masters work, I was a student of Jay Siegel, who set me on my path to a forensic science career.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career to date?

Being Director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. I structured the new agency, created many of its new policies for independent science, and worked with people who remain my heroes for what they do.

During your years working in forensic science, how do you feel the field has changed?

I worry that the field has become a bit of a cargo-cult science–we’ve “drunk our own Kool-aid”, as the saying goes. We believe if we SAY something is “scientific”, then it IS scientific. We’ve also come up with some fairly suspect ways of justifying bad or marginal science and these have been accepted by an all-too-willing court system. That is beginning to change, a little, with some good basic research into the fundamentals of our science but we’re still hampered by trying to be the servant of justice instead of a partner in the process.

In recent years, concerns over the reliability of some forensic techniques have been raised in the media. What steps do you think we need to be taking to ensure that only scientifically reliable techniques are utilised in legal investigations?

First and foremost, forensic agencies need to be independent of law enforcement; that won’t solve everything but it’s a good start to ensure we’re not marginalized. Second, we need to stop worrying about new methods and shore up the ones we’re already using–do they work and, if so, how well? Finally, we have to be better communicators about what we can and cannot say and why. Being pressured by money, time, or politics only gets you shoddy results–just look at any of the latest “forensic failures”.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for those pursuing a career in forensic science?

Be a scientist first; the application to criminal cases can come later. Don’t job hop; keep your first job at least two years and then move up or out. And last, don’t worry about ethics, worry about integrity. Ethics is knowing right from wrong and prisons are full of people who know the difference, they just lacked the integrity to make the right choice.

 

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Sweat Security: Using Skin Secretions for Authentication

Sweat Security: Using Skin Secretions for Authentication

The use of passwords and pin numbers is part of our daily lives, being a necessity in ensuring our data and money doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. However passwords and pattern-based pins have their obvious limitations, and they are only as secure as the user is cautious.  One method of improving security utilises biometric technology, which is based on the biological or behavioural characteristics of an individual. Biometric-based security systems are certainly nothing new. The concept of using fingerprints, retinal scans and voice recognition as security measures materialised decades ago, and such techniques are frequently used for authentication purposes. Despite these technological developments, ongoing research is attempting to develop more robust and secure methods of identification.

Researchers at the University of Albany are developing a unique new technique of biometric identification using only a person’s sweat. Human sweat, and all body fluids for that matter, contains a plethora of chemical compounds, ranging from small weight molecules to large proteins. These compounds originate from a variety of sources, with some resulting from endogenous metabolic processes within the body, and others being introduced through diet and environmental exposure. Metabolite levels can be affected by an endless array of factors, including sex, ethnicity, age and lifestyle. Interestingly, it is now known that the presence and amount of some of these compounds can vary greatly between different people, thus in theory unique metabolome profiles could be harnessed for identification purposes.

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The compounds the technique will focus on is vital, as certain chemical levels can fluctuate wildly throughout the day depending on what we have eaten, for instance. However levels of certain chemicals have been found to be relatively stable or at least only vary gradually. In this research, Assistant Professor Jan Halámek and his team focused on using amino acid profiles of sweat to offer a unique means of authentication.

By first establishing which amino acids are present in a person’s skin secretions, a wearable device can then be constructed which will monitor the levels of these compounds. The device would initially require a kind of enrolment period, during which time the user’s skin secretions would be constantly measured in order to develop a unique profile of metabolites. It is already known that the metabolites released by the body vary throughout the day, so such a monitoring period would be necessary to take into account these changes.

Over time a profile of the user’s skin secretions would be built up and stored within the device, acting as a kind of standard for comparison. When future skin secretions are analysed by the device, the profiles will be compared with the known user profile and used to confirm the identity of the user. In the event of anyone else picking up the device, the instrument would detect a different skin secretion profile and lock the device or turn it off, thus ensuring security of the smartphone or computer.

If successful, the technology could offer an improved active authentication system, either as a standalone system or supplementing existing technology. However the technique is very much in its infancy and a great deal more research will be required before this kind of technology is rolled out commercially, if it ever is possible. It is likely that such a technique will be affected by contamination, for instance as the user’s hands become dirty throughout the day or if cleaning or cosmetic products are applied to the skin. Furthermore, if authentication is based on comparison with an electronically stored profile, the device may still be susceptible to hacking in order to bypass the security system. But if this technique could reach a sufficient level of robustness, the days of struggling to remember your password could be eliminated.

 

Agudelo, J. Privman, V. Halamek, J. Promises and Challenges in Continuous Tracking Utilizing Amino Acids in Skin Secretions for Active Multi-Factor Biometric Authentication for Cybersecurity. ChemPhysChem. 18, 1714-1720 (2017).