Thoughts could be future of security

John Chuang
John Chaung/Courtesy

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In a few years’ time, people may be able to unlock their personal devices without even lifting a finger, thanks to researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Instead of symbols and characters, thoughts may be the new key.

In a study entitled “I Think, Therefore I Am,” which was announced earlier this month, professor John Chuang of the School of Information, along with three UC Berkeley students, found that brain waves can be used to differentiate individuals and therefore establish a means of security authentication in the form of a “passthought” rather than a traditional password.

“You can think of your favorite player in a soccer game and his stance, or you can think of the most delicious hamburger you’ve ever eaten,” said School of Information graduate student Charles Wang, who worked on the study. “And then the system will reboot itself, and you’ll be authenticated. I think that’s wonderful.”

Though Chuang does not believe that brainwave authentication will completely replace traditional text passwords, he states that it is the likely next step in computer security and that the use of EEG brainwave sensors and other biometric methods will likely develop quickly as further research is conducted.

“I think we have demonstrated that (brainwave authentication) works, and therefore it is worthwhile to pursue further,” Chuang said.

In addition to passthoughts, which are specific memories, the researchers explored other mental tasks, such as blinking, breathing, moving fingers, viewing certain colors, thinking of sports and singing a song in one’s head. Their findings showed that brainwave patterns remain distinct from individual to individual, regardless of the mental task.

“Even if we all sing the same song in the same way, maybe there’s still something fundamentally different about my brainwave patterns from yours that we can distinguish,” Chuang said.

Though Chuang’s work builds upon previous studies in the field, his is the first to use a consumer-grade NeuroSky brainwave sensor, a single-channel EEG reader. Previous studies have traditionally relied on multichannel EEG readers instead.

“Their work looks very promising,” said Doug Tygar, a professor of computer science and information management at UC Berkeley. “I think the study is very interesting and really opens new doors in research.”

The initial study displays the possibility for thoughts and brain waves to be the security tools of the future. Not only does the study show that it is possible, but it also demonstrates that this kind of technology can potentially be easy to use and accessible to the average person.

“We don’t have to sacrifice usability for security,” said Hamilton Nguyen, an undergraduate senior studying electrical engineering and computer sciences who contributed to the study. “You can have a secure system that’s (also) easy to use.”

Though future research is needed before brainwave authentication can be widely implemented, a number of issues brought up in the study must be further investigated, researchers say.

For one, researchers need to develop faster and simpler ways to establish user brainwave profiles that can be easily applied to the larger population.

Still, the potential for growth is large. Both Chuang and Wang discussed the potential advantage of brainwave authentication in wearable computers, such as Google Glass.

Although voice recognition and other more traditional biometric methods for computer security are more readily available, Chuang is convinced that EEG sensors and brainwave authentication could potentially be the next step.

“When we go to mobile devices and wearable computers, I think there’s a great application for brainwave authentication,” Chuang said. “It’s intuitive and something that’s not awkward to perform while walking down the street.”

Contact Jennie Yoon at [email protected]

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