As technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives, it is no wonder that solving crimes has become almost futuristic in its advances. From retinal scanning to trace evidence chemistry, actual forensic technologies are so advanced at helping to solve crimes that they seem like something from a science-fiction thriller.
With all this forensic technology, this field is one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. One way to measure this is in the increased demand for forensic science technicians.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), there will be an 11 percent increase in jobs for forensic science technicians nationally between 2021 and 2031. The BLS indicates that this growth is due to new forensic science techniques that have increased the availability and reliability of objective forensic information. Courts and law enforcement agencies need to hire additional staff to use these techniques to analyze data for use in trials.
Shows like CSI and NCIS have made most of the forensic science techniques used today common knowledge. You might think that virtually the whole gamut of forensic technology is old hat to today’s savvy viewer. In fact, since 2020, there have been over 22,000 scientific publications on new advances in forensic science. Some of these findings are brand-new technologies, while others are new ways of analyzing evidence in an established field. Regardless, these innovations are making it harder for criminals to evade detection by forensic scientists.
Here are some incredibly cool forensic technologies you probably never knew existed.
Fingerprints are essential for analyzing many crime scenes. However, there are many reasons why it may be hard to see one clearly, including low sensitivity, low contrast, or high toxicity.
Researchers have developed a fluorescent carbon dot powder that can be applied to fingerprints, making them fluorescent under UV light and subsequently much easier to analyze. With this new application, fingerprints will glow red, yellow, or orange.
While artificial intelligence (AI) has been used in many other fields for decades, it is relatively new to forensic science. This is primarily because all evidence and the analysis must stand up in court. However, recent advancements have seen AI utilized successfully in all forensic components of a criminal case. While AI is most often used in digital forensics, it is increasingly used to analyze a crime scene, compare fingerprint data, draw conclusions from photograph comparisons, and more.
Atomic and molecular technology are finding their way into forensic science. Analyzing forensic materials at this minute level can offer scientists insights that previously weren’t accessible.
Nanosensors are being utilized to examine the presence of illegal drugs, explosive materials, and biological agents on the molecular level. Specific advancements this past year have included scientists’ ability to analyze the presence of carbon and polymer-based nanomaterials to make their determinations and aid investigators.
Forensic scientists have traditionally relied heavily on DNA to determine a suspect or victim. However, advances in detecting and identifying proteins have made proteomes an essential forensic science tool. Proteomes are a complete set of proteins produced by an organism.
Scientists can find proteomes in blood, bones, and other biological materials and analyze them to find answers, such as if a victim came in contact with an otherwise undetectable venom or matching a severely degraded body fluid sample to a perpetrator. One aspect of proteomes that differs from DNA is that they change over time, offering scientists valuable insights into a victim’s age or other environmental factors at the time of death that are impossible to detect through other methods.
The Foldscope is a small, disposable, inexpensive paper microscope that has been around since 2014. However, just recently, it has found its way from third-world country applications into the world of forensic science. Due to its portability and low cost, the Foldscope can be used in the field to make on-the-spot determinations about forensic samples, including blood, hair, and soil.
While the conclusions drawn with Foldscope are only preliminary, they can aid law enforcement early on in an investigation and speed up the discovery process. Using a Foldscope in the field can also lighten the load for forensic laboratories, which are often backlogged and can take significant time to deliver results.
Several factors were considered when deciding which technologies to include on this list.
Finally, here is a collection of earlier advances in forensics technologies archived from 2022 and earlier.
While DNA gathered from a crime scene can be matched to a suspect by comparing samples, DNA can also be used to determine what a suspect physically looks like. DNA has 23 chromosomes that code outward appearance. Forensic scientists can sequence a DNA sample and provide investigators with identifying traits of the suspect, including hair, eye, and skin color. Newer techniques can also predict age and biological background.
Like DNA, fingerprints found at a crime scene can be matched to a suspect by comparing them. However, fingerprints aren’t always clear or readable. Forensic scientists can now use biosensors to analyze the minute traces of bodily fluids found in fingerprints to identify the suspect. Data that can be detected include age, medications, gender, and lifestyle. Biosensors can also be used on other bodily fluids found at a crime scene.
Immunochromatography is a method to test for diseases by dropping a small sample onto a prepared test strip. Results are relatively quick, and common tests that use this technique include Covid, HIV, and even pregnancy tests. In forensics, immunochromatography tests detect substances in subjects’ bodily fluids, such as drugs and medications.
A smartphone-based sensor has even been developed to evaluate a saliva sample through immunochromatography without needing to be in a lab.
Isotopes vary from atom to atom and can have a unique signature. Recent forensic developments have found that scientists can determine where the sample could have originated by isolating the isotopes in a water sample found on a suspect or victim.
If there are several samples, the isotopes can recreate the path the subject took. Isotope detection through other methods can also be used to determine the number of people present.
Forensic palynology is a relatively new area for forensic scientists. Palynology is the study of pollen, spores, grains, and seeds and can be used in forensics to identify a subject’s location. Pollen and spores are minute and can be deposited on skin and clothes largely undetected. Scientists have now developed techniques to gather and compare these trace materials and use them as evidence.
Over 50 percent of personal and corporate data is now stored in the cloud, on remote servers. As a result, digital forensic scientists have had to develop methods for collecting, analyzing, and evaluating data collected from the cloud.
Managing this data presents several security and privacy issues. To help protect the integrity of the data’s integrity and maintain a custody chain, digital forensic scientists have begun to use blockchain technology, as it is virtually impossible to tamper with.
Vehicle forensics has typically been where investigators gather physical evidence, including fingerprints, fluid samples, and trace materials like dirt. Also, they can physically examine the car to determine how an accident, crash, or terrorist attack occurred.
However, as vehicles have become more technologically sophisticated, it has opened the field of digital vehicle forensics, where scientists and investigators can gather data such as recent destinations, typical routes, personal data, and favorite locations.
Over 3.6 billion people are on social networks, which is projected to increase to 4.5 by 2025. When social media emerged, investigators and forensic scientists didn’t have as much data to comb through. Now, the social media data for a particular subject can be daunting.
To help evaluate this data, scientists have recently developed models for analyzing the information gleaned from social networks. For automated data analysis to be accepted in court, it has to be based on models that are reproducible, explainable, and testable.
Forensic scientists often receive physical evidence that needs to be pieced back together. This is called physical fit and is a well-recognized method of determining that two pieces are from the same source. This evidence can be a variety of materials, and often they can be relatively fragile such as bones.
A recent study at the University of Portsmouth used 3D imaging to map the exact dimensions of some burnt bones and then replicated the pieces using a 3D printer. This enabled them to determine if pieces fit together or not without having to excessively handle the fragile evidence.
As of August 2021, there were over 880,000 drones registered with the FAA in the United States. Over 40 percent of those drones are registered for commercial use. The increased popularity of these unmanned aerial vehicles has given criminals a new tool to smuggle drugs, perform illegal surveillance, and attack victims. Forensic scientists are developing methods and models for gathering and analyzing data from drones, SD cards, and cell phones.
When broken glass is involved in a crime, putting together even tiny pieces can be key to finding important clues like the direction of bullets, the force of impact or the type of weapon used in a crime. Through its highly sensitive isotopic recognition ability, the LA-ICP-MS machine breaks glass samples of almost any size down to their atomic structure.
Then forensic scientists can match even the smallest shard of glass found on clothing to a glass sample from a crime scene. A bachelor’s degree in forensic science is usually necessary to work with this type of equipment in conjunction with forensic investigation.
For a forensic nurse, being able to ascertain how much physical damage a patient has suffered quickly can be the difference between life and death. Although they have many tools at their disposal to help make these calls quickly and accurately,
Alternative light photography is one of the coolest tools to help see the damage even before it is visible on the skin. A camera such as the Omnichrome uses blue light and orange filters to show bruising below the skin’s surface clearly. To use this equipment, you would need an MSN in forensic nursing.
You might not think of it right away as a tool for forensic scientists, but ballistics specialists often use high-speed cameras in order to understand how bullet holes, gunshot wounds, and glass shatters are created.
Virtually anyone, from a crime scene investigator to a firearms examiner, can operate a high-speed camera without any additional education or training. Identifying and matching bullet trajectories, impact marks, and exit wounds must be done by someone with at least a bachelor’s of science in forensic science.
This is one of the most valuable forensic technologies available for crime scene investigators and forensic scientists. With this machine, scientists and investigators can look at a piece of paper and see obscured or hidden writing, determine the quality of paper and origin and “lift” indented writing. It is sometimes possible to complete these analyses even after a piece of paper has been so damaged by water or fire that it looks unintelligible to the naked eye.
In order to run this equipment, at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a master’s degree in document analysis is usually required.
Most people don’t consider a gaming system a potential place for hiding illicit data, which is why criminals have come to use them so much. In one of the most ground-breaking forensic technologies for digital forensic specialists, the XFT is being developed to allow authorities visual access to hidden files on the Xbox hard drive.
The XFT is also set up to record access sessions to be replayed in real-time during court hearings. In order to be able to access and interpret this device, a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Forensics is necessary.
Although this forensic technology is not considered the most reliable, it is definitely one of the most interesting available to forensic pathologists, forensic anthropologists, and forensic scientists. In this technique, 3D facial reconstruction software takes real-life human remains and extrapolates a possible physical appearance. In order to run this type of program, you should have a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, a master’s degree in forensic anthropology, or a medical degree with an emphasis on forensic examination and pathology.
Most people are familiar with the importance of DNA testing in the forensic science lab. Still, most people don’t know exactly what DNA sequencers are and how they may be used. Most forensic scientists and crime lab technicians use DNA profiling to identify criminals and victims using trace evidence like hair or skin samples.
In cases where those samples are highly degraded, however, they often turn to the more powerful DNA sequencer, which allows them to analyze old bones or teeth to determine the specific ordering of a person’s DNA nucleobases, and generate a “read” or a unique DNA pattern that can help identify that person as a possible suspect or criminal.
Carbon dating has long been used to identify the age of unknown remains for anthropological and archaeological findings. Since the amount of radiocarbon (which is calculated in carbon-14 dating) has increased and decreased to distinct levels over the past 50 years, it is now possible to use this technique to identify forensic remains using this same tool.
The only people in the forensic science field that have ready access to carbon-14 dating equipment are forensic scientists, usually with a master’s degree in forensic anthropology or forensic archaeology.
With these forensic technologies, crime scene investigators, forensic scientists, and police officers can quickly and easily compare a fingerprint at a crime scene with an extensive virtual database. In addition, the incorporation of magnetic fingerprinting dust and no-touch wanding allows investigators to get a perfect impression of fingerprints at a crime scene without contamination.
While using AFIS requires only an associate degree in law enforcement, magnetic fingerprinting usually requires a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or crime scene investigation.
When a forensic accountant is trying to track illicit funds through a sea of paperwork, link analysis software is an invaluable tool to help highlight strange financial activity.
Software can now combine observations of unusual digital financial transactions, customer profiling, and statistics to generate probabilities of illegal behavior. To accurately understand and interpret findings with this forensic technology, a master’s degree in forensic accounting is necessary.
Kimmy Gustafson’s expertise and passion for investigative storytelling extends to the world of forensics, where she brings a wealth of knowledge and captivating narratives to readers seeking insights into this intriguing world. She has interviewed experts on little-known topics, such as how climate crimes are investigated and prosecuted, and has written for ForensicsColleges.com since 2019.
Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.