High-tech IDs would use ‘brain power’

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

Researchers are developing a new brainwave technology which would make troublesome computer passwords a thing of the past for users

Charles Mandel

Digital security researchers at Ottawa’s Carleton University are proposing a new biometrics system for computer security using “pass-thoughts.”

Users would employ their brain signals as passwords, transmitting thoughts to their computers to verify their identification.

The researchers say pass-thoughts could help defeat so-called shoulder-surfers — people who watch others punch in computer passwords in order to steal them.

“We’re in the process of doing a proof-of-concept right now,” said Carleton researcher Julie Thorpe in an interview Friday. “We’re just experimenting in the lab and seeing what we can get.”

In a recent paper titled Pass-thoughts: Authenticating with Our Minds, Thorpe, Paul van Oorschot and Anil Somayaji — researchers in Carleton’s Digital Security Group in the School of Computer Science — write that they’ve outlined “the design of what we believe to be a currently feasible pass-thought system.”

The system builds on current brain-computer interface (BCI) research used in areas such as prosthetics for disabled patients. Thorpe notes that with BCIs scientists have made it possible for the disabled to control computer cursors on screens and use rudimentary spelling devices.

Pass-thoughts could consist of words, images or even music.

Users would wear a headphone-like device featuring external electrodes attached to their heads. They would press a computer key, causing some sort of stimulus such as an image to be flashed at them. Their response to that stimulus would be the pass-thought, unlocking their computer.

Thorpe said an alternate pass-thought system might involve thinking a specific thought in response to the stimulus.

The researchers believe electroencephalogram (EEG) signals, which represent electrical activity in the brain, have potential as thought-passes because the “alpha frequency (a signal feature in an EEG signal) has been found to have considerable variability between subjects.”

Just don’t expect to wrinkle up your brow and beam thoughts at your computer any time soon.

Several challenges exist before thought-passes become an everyday technology.

The toughest problem is separating the pass-thought from all other brainwave activity.

“There’s a lot of things going on in your brain at any one time,” Thorpe said. “You want to be able to isolate one piece of that. That’s the part you want to be repeatable for your pass sign.”

Thorpe said even if the scientists arrive at their proof, it will likely be decades before pass-thoughts are commercially available.

David Lie, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, believes engineering such a device might be difficult but not impossible.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006


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