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Your Thoughts Could Become Your New Online Password
Posted April 10, 2013
Your Thoughts Could Become Your New Online Password
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By Barry Levine. Updated April 10, 2013 11:06AM

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If your mind is chockful of all those passwords you have, hold that thought. A team of researchers has developed a way to use unique brain patterns, derived from thinking a specific thought, as a password.

A research team at the University of California-Berkeley's School of Information has used biosensors to measure brainwaves of subjects who are thinking of a song, an image or other mental imaging. The sensor touches the subject's forehead and transmits a electroencephalogram (EEG). The unique brainwaves can then be ID'd and used as "passthoughts."

The researchers utilized a commercially available headset that retails for $100 and transmits the patterns via Bluetooth to a computer. The team, lead by School of Information professor John Chuang, presented their findings this week at the 2013 Workshop on Usable Security, which took place at the 17th International Conference on Financial Cryptography and Data Security in Okinawa, Japan.

Similar to Music Headset

Biometric identification has been touted for the last several decades as a Next Big Thing, but systems designed to take advantage of humans' unique fingerprints, retina patterns, voice or facial ID have been hindered in their widespread adoption by cost, slowness, lack of standards or necessary hardware, and, frequently, a sense that body IDs were just a little too personal.

The researchers note that traditional clinical EEGs require dense electrode arrays in order to record 32, 64, 128 or 256 channels of EEG, but newer consumer-grade headsets require only one dry-contact sensor on one's forehead to read signals from the left frontal lobe.

The headset used was the Neurosky MindSet. The researchers noted that, except for the EEG sensor, the headset is otherwise "indistinguishable from a conventional Bluetooth headset" that is used with mobile phones or music players.

Do Brain Patterns Change?

The team said that, by customizing the authentication threshold for each user, they were able to keep error rates under 1 percent. Uses were asked to perform several different mental tasks, three that were done by all the users and four that were individualized and secret to a given user.

For the common tasks, the participants were asked to focus on their breathing, imagine moving their finger up and down, or listen to an audio tone while focusing on a dot on a piece of paper. Personalized secrets including imagining a repetitive motion from a sport, such as swinging a golf club or kicking a ball, silently singing a song of their choice, or choosing their own thought and focusing on it for ten seconds.

The researchers have not yet tested whether someone's thought patterns could be duplicated, or if the system could otherwise be hacked.

Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, noted that biometrics could be appealing, but they've never quite materialized. He wondered if one's "brain patterns change over time," specifically considering research that indicates when you remember something, you're actually remembering your last memory of it -- meaning that memory degradation is built-in.

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