In a world where nearly 6 million fingerprint records of government employees are stolen in one brazen computer hack, and nearly 18 million Americans are victims of identity theft every year, the next step in cybersecurity may well be mapping your brain.
Researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York are working on a biometric system that records how your brain reacts to certain images. With a little more polishing, the scientists' brainchild could become the way you get into a safe deposit box, your office or past scanners at the airport. It could replace the password for your online banking, your email or your YouTube accounts.
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Sounds James Bondsy, right? Maybe a little. But 15 years ago, you laughed about fingerprints as passwords, remember?
Have you seen an iPhone lately?
"All [government] biometric systems in the United State that were secured with fingerprints are now compromised. And they're compromised forever, because those people, they have the fingers that they have. They can't grow new fingers. So we have to replace the system with something," says Sarah Laszlo, an assistant professor at Binghamton. "Brain biometrics are a really strong candidate."
The so-called "brainprint" system was developed by Laszlo, an assistant professor of psychology and the director of the Brain and Machine Laboratory at Binghamton, and colleague Zhanpeng Jin, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the upstate New York school.
They started their project by measuring the brain waves of 30 subjects with an electroencephalogram (EEG). The subjects were fitted with a cap that had 30 electrodes attached to it, then shown various images and symbols — celebrity faces, words, pictures of food — on a computer screen in 200-millisecond bursts. The brain's reaction was recorded.
The idea, then, is that every time a person needs to use a "password," he or she goes through the same procedure, and the results are matched with the first time they were shown the images. If the "brainprint" is compromised — like what happened with the fingerprint records — then the system is merely reset by running another set of images and collecting a different set of brain waves.
"You can record a brain 'password,' say, to your brain's response to a picture of your grandma or your favorite cat or something," Laszlo says. "Even if that were stolen, you could just cancel it, just like you would a regular password, and record it to something else."
The researchers' work is detailed in the journal Neurocomputing.
Laszlo and her team have shown that their system can be 100 percent accurate, critical for the high-security applications that they envision it could be used in initially. So one of the more difficult parts of making the system practical already has been overcome.
Now, they're spending a lot of time trying to make the system more user friendly. They can record accurate brainprints now with as few as three electrodes, which could make recording in the future as easy as sliding on a pair of special glasses. They're working with cheaper materials and different methods to see if they can bring the cost down. They're trying to make the whole system faster, so a print can be taken in under a minute.
"If we want people to use this, and give us credit for it, we need it to be as broadly applicable as possible," Laszlo says. "We need to get it faster and we need to get it cheaper."
And then … who knows? Who saw that iPhone fingerprint thing coming 20 years ago?
"I could imagine, maybe 20 years form now, your phone is going to be measuring your brain activity," Laszlo says. "Why not?"