Molecules on Your Phone Reveal Intimate Details About Your Life

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Intimate details of someone’s life and health can now be revealed just by analyzing the molecules left behind on their cellphone.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego took swabs from 39 cellphones and then compared what they found with the Global Natural Products Social Molecular Networking database, which tracks the chemical makeup of thousands of products, including prescription drugs and even hair dye.

Flickr user Chris Meller shows off the smudges on his iPhone CC BY-SA 2.0
Flickr user Chris Meller shows off the smudges on his iPhone CC BY-SA 2.0

Just from this, the researchers were able to determine everything from the sex of a person, whether or not they struggled with depression, and what allergies they had. Researchers also could tell what kind of food they ate and if they preferred wine or beer.

“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,” said first author Dr. Amina Bouslimani, of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

Some food molecules, sunscreen ingredients, and even mosquito repellant were detected on the phones months after the owners last used them. This discovery suggests that objects can provide long-term personality sketches, which could potentially be very helpful for law enforcement officials.

“You can imagine a scenario where a crime scene investigator comes across a personal object – like a phone, pen or key – without fingerprints or DNA, or with prints or DNA not found in the database,” said senior author Dr. Pieter Dorrenstein. “So we thought – what if we take advantage of left-behind skin chemistry to tell us what kind of lifestyle this person has?”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Danielle Tarasiuk

Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.