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A First Look at a New Security Technology: On-Body Transmission

Smartphone pressing home scaled

Did you ever wonder how safe it was for you to be sending passwords or secret codes via airwaves through WiFi or Bluetooth? It can be a problem in that these transmissions can be susceptible to hacking and, once intercepted, the codes are susceptible to having the encryptions decoded. Well, a team of researchers…consisting of electrical engineers and computer scientists…at the University of Washington, believe they have come up with a solution with what they are calling “on-body transmission.”

Your cellphone fingerprint sensors and touchpads on many computer devices generate low-frequency transmissions that they have harnessed to send secure passwords through the human body.

“Fingerprint sensors have so far been used as an input device. What is cool is that we’ve shown for the first time that fingerprint sensors can be re-purposed to send out information that is confined to the body,” said one of the lead scientists, Shyam Gollakota of the U of W.

First results show a much more secure way to transmit authentication data to any number of devices, as long as the transmitting device, such as your smartphone, and the receiving device, such a medical equipment, are both touching your body at the same time. Your smartphone confirms your identity when you type in your password and transmits this to the other (in this case medical) device. This is accomplished by leveraging the signals that the smartphone is already generating.

The sensors in most up-to-date smartphones receive data about your fingers. The researchers came up with a way to instead use this data as output that ties in with data in your password. When used in a smartphone, this authenticating data actually travels securely through your body to the device seeking to confirm your identity. Among other uses, medical devices are high on the list. For example, this technology can be used to confirm identities before sending or receiving data from insulin pumps or glucose monitors.

As a managed IT service provider, we are always interested in new technologies, particularly those that involve security, often before the practical ways in which we will eventually use them for IT security are developed. It’s just one way we stay ahead of the pack. It’s early, but we believe that this may lead to a major shift in any number of security protocols. As for accuracy, the U of W researchers have tested the technology using a wide variety of devices, on people of various ages, weights and heights, and while sitting, standing, moving and even sleeping. They even tested it on various parts of the body – head, hands, feet, etc. The technology worked in all tested situations. Again, this process is still in its infancy, but the early results are very promising.

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