Saturday, June 30, 2007

Burn Notice "Pilot"

What do spies do when they've been blacklisted? According to Burn Notice, they hang around in Miami, avoid their mothers, and get advice from alcoholic ex-spies. In this "Get Shorty meets The Equalizer" one hour drama, you also learn that blacklisted spies have many useful skills that they can pull from their tradecraft to assist people who can't get help from the law.

One of these skills is using latent fingerprints lifted from a fingerprint reader to open a safe.

You might be thinking that this is something the screen writer made up to get himself out of a jam, but according to a Japanese researcher, it can be done--with about an 80% success rate. However, what was shown in this episode is an overly simplified, and slightly inaccurate, depiction of what you would actually need to do to pull it off. Let me explain.

If Burn Notice were a two-hour procedural drama, you would have seen Jeffrey Donovan's character find a non-porous surface, such as a water glass, that he knew the safe's owner had touched. Getting the print from the safe seems like a logical idea, but in reality, the size and weight of the safe would make it difficult to work with.

Next, he would use a technique called cyanoacrylate fuming to draw out the latent prints. Cyanoacrylate fuming is just a fancy way of saying you expose the surface to vaporized Krazy Glue. These vapors, or fumes, react with with the amino acids and other proteins that are left when you touch something with your fingers. This reaction forms a white sticky material that outlines the ridges of the fingerprints. This white sticky material is another reason why you wouldn't want to use the safe to get the print--you'd have to clean that sticky crap off before you left.

Once the reaction is complete, you can stain the results with colored dust and photograph them. Despite what you may have seen on those CSI shows, this process can take more than two hours and also requires the object to be placed in an sealed container. You'd probably be better off doing this in a safe place, in other words, not a house you just broke into.

Next, he would transfer the photograph to a computer, enhance it with Photoshop and print it out on transparency paper. The transparency would be placed over the photosensitive material that hobbyists use to create custom circuit boards. The material would then be exposed to ultraviolet light and washed with acid. ] The pattern that was printed on the transparency would now be etched into the board, creating an accurate mold of the fingerprint. The materials needed to do this are available at most electric hobby shops for around $50.

To create his fake fingertip, he would pour gelatin into the mold and let it harden. He could then place the gummy fingertip on his own, and use it to fool the fingerprint reader and open the safe. Nice and easy.

Someone could probably create a portable kit so that this could be done on scene, but they'd need to speed up the cyanoacrylate fuming process to make the process streamlined enough for a black bag job.