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James Sharp, The University of Nottingham

Scientists Create New Technology That Can ID the Wearer of a Shoe

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James Sharp, The University of Nottingham

For all the advancements in forensic technology over the past two decades, some areas continue to lag. Current shoeprint analysis techniques are still relatively old-fashioned and provide little information. Now, two British scientists have devised a new method that uses patterns of wear on the shoe’s sole to identify the wearer. They described their technique in the journal Scientific Reports last week.

Today, most shoeprint analysis can provide police with just two types of information: the type of shoe and its size. But the marks left behind by a suspect fleeing the scene or a missing person have much more information to offer. The trick is accessing it. 

“There are only a finite number of shoe types in circulation and only a small subset of these are found at crime scenes (this is particularly true in the UK),” the authors write in the paper. “So how then, can we hope to use images of footwear that have been retrieved from a crime scene to differentiate between similar shoe types and identify an individual? The answer lies in the individual nature of the wear patterns that are exhibited by shoes worn by different people.”

The authors cite a 2002 study involving U.S. Marines. The research showed that although the soldiers wore the same shoes, the soles of their boots were different. Each person walked differently, thereby creating a unique pattern of wear. These patterns are not as identifiable as fingerprints, the current study authors say, but they could be used to link a suspect to a particular location.

Capturing those wear patterns requires more advanced techniques than are currently in use. But advanced doesn’t have to mean expensive. The authors assembled a scanner-like setup using just a pane of glass on a platform, strips of LED lights, black tape, and web cameras. For the study, participants stood on the light-lined platform, under which the researchers had placed the web cams. The participants were then asked to rock back and forth on their feet to simulate walking as the web cams recorded the impressions of their shoes against the glass. Afterwards, the recordings were translated into black-and-white images that could be compared to other shoeprints in a national database.

“There are potentially interesting uses for this type of pressure analysis in forensic science,” the authors write in the paper. “For example, this kind of approach could be used to determine how an individual distributes their weight through their shoe soles when they walk and/or run and hence determine roughly how fast they may have been moving when they deposited a shoe print. Combined measurements of contact area and pressure distributions could also be used to determine how hard an individual might have kicked a surface such as a door (during forced entry), or even possibly another person.”

While the apparatus is new, the technique itself builds on an existing process called Frustrated Total Internal Reflection (FTIR) imaging. Existing FTIR techniques looked at bare footprints, which might be helpful for crimes committed at nudist colonies, but not too many other places. The new shoeprint-reading technique has the potential to be of much broader use in police work.

“The low cost and ease of implementation of the technique make it particularly appealing for forensic applications,” co-author James Sharp said in a press release. “We are currently in the process of working with local police forensic laboratories and the Home Office to try to develop this work further.”

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History
Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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crime
German Police Tried to Fine Someone $1000 for Farting at Them
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Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images for IMG

In Berlin, passing gas can cost you. Quite a lot, actually, in the case of a man accused of disrespecting police officers by releasing a pair of noxious farts while being detained by the police. As CityLab reports, Berlin’s police force has recently been rocked by a scandal hinging on the two farts of one man who was asked to show his ID to police officers while partying on an evening in February 2016.

The man in question was accused of disrespecting the officers involved by aiming his flatulence at a policewoman, and was eventually slapped with a fine of 900 euros ($1066) in what local media called the "Irrer-Pups Prozess," or "Crazy Toot Trial." The errant farter was compelled to show up for court in September after refusing to pay the fine. A judge dismissed the case in less than 10 minutes.

But the smelly situation sparked a political scandal over the police resources wasted over the non-crime. It involved 18 months, 23 public officials, and 17 hours of official time—on the taxpayers’ dime. Officials estimate that those two minor toots cost taxpayers more than $100, which is chump change in terms of city budgets, but could have been used to deal with more pressing criminal issues.

[h/t CityLab]

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