Identifying suspects from reflections in the eye is not just fodder for police drama. It’s reality, says a new study led by researchers from the University of York and University of Glasgow. The report, “Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections,” reveals how investigators can glean recognizable reflections from witness’ eyes. 

The scientists positioned a group of eight people in front of “bystanders” and, using a 30 megapixel digital camera, photographed the latter’s faces in high resolution. By zooming in on the eyes, they managed to extract facial images that—though fuzzy or highly pixelated—were still identifiable. 

Although the experiment was conducted in a controlled setting, corneal reflections can have a major impact for law enforcement out in the field, particularly since mobile devices are quickly becoming high-quality cameras. During criminal investigations, smartphones and cameras are often seized as evidence. After the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April, footage from bystanders and security cameras played a key role in identifying the suspects. 

Image courtesy of research article “Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections.”