Your smartphone contains more data about you than you realize

Researchers find that by touching our phones all the time we’re leaving our biological mark on them

texting-600x450_0.jpgImage credit: flickr/Nika Vee (license)
Bacteria transfer in progress

Those smartphones that so many of us carry around all day allow us (and others) to track unprecedented amounts of information about ourselves. They can generate seemingly endless streams of data about a wide range of our daily activities such as the people we contact, how many steps we take each day and where we’ve been. It turns out that our phones are also collecting another type of very personal information about us: namely our DNA.

A new study by researchers from the University of Oregon titled “Mobile phones carry the personal microbiome of their owners” and published by PeerJ, looked at the biological connection between people and their phones. They hypothesized that the collection of bacteria on the touch screen of a smartphone will reflect the bacteria found on the fingers of its owner. To test this hypothesis, the researchers swabbed the fingers of 17 volunteers, as well as the touch screens of their phones. Contents of the swabs from the fingers and phones were then analyzed using statistical methods.

They had three main findings:

The bacteria on phones reflect frequent human contact

As suspected, the researchers found a high correlation between the bacteria on the phones and those on the participants’ fingers. Specifically, 22% of the bacterial OTUs (operational taxonomic units, the metric used by the researchers) on the subjects’ fingers were also on their phones. However, 82% of the the most common bacteria found in participants, those representing more than 0.1% of a single person’s dataset, were also found on their phones. Contrary to what you may think, washing hands had no effect on the correlation between bacteria on the phone and that on subjects’ fingers.

The bacteria on a person’s phone reflect that specific person more than others

The researchers tested whether the bacteria a phone resembled the microbes from its owner more than those from other people. The answer was, not surprisingly, yes; each participant’s index finger shared, on average, 5% more bacteria with that person’s phone than with others’ phones.

Women are more biologically connected to their phones than men

Interestingly, while all participants shared bacteria with their phones, there was a difference between the amount men shared and the amount women shared. The researchers did not find a statistically significant difference between the bacterial community composition on a woman’s index finger and that on her smartphone, while they did find a difference for the men. That is, women seem to have more bacteria in common with their phones than men do. The authors did not offer for a theory for the cause of this difference.

Based on these results, the authors argue that our smartphones “hold untapped potential as personal microbiome sensors.” They also suggest that swabbing our phones could enable larger scale microbial studies which more invasive sampling methods might restrict. Combined with cheaper DNA sequencing technology, smartphones could also be used for things like easily screening health care workers for pathogens and to generally help us to better understand what kind of microbes we’re exchanging with our environment on a daily basis.

Interesting! It seems like there are a number of potential positive implications of this research. On the other hand, I imagine that the thought of somebody being able to learn a lot about you by swabbing your smartphone screen may give people worried about privacy one more thing to keep them up at night.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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