IN “SKYFALL”, the latest James Bond movie, 007 is given a gun that only he can fire. It works by recognising his palm print, rendering it impotent when it falls into a baddy’s hands.
Like many of Q’s more fanciful inventions, the fiction is easier to conjure up than the fact. But there is a real-life biometric system that would have served Bond just as well: cardiac-rhythm recognition.
Anyone who has watched a medical drama can picture an electrocardiogram (ECG)—the five peaks and troughs, known as a PQRST pattern (see picture), that map each heartbeat. The shape of this pattern is affected by such things as the heart’s size, its shape and its position in the body. Cardiologists have known since 1964 that everyone’s heartbeat is thus unique, and researchers around the world have been trying to turn that knowledge into a viable biometric system. Until now, they have had little success. One group may, though, have cracked it.
Foteini Agrafioti of the University of Toronto and her colleagues have patented a system which constantly measures a person’s PQRST pattern, confirms this corresponds with the registered user’s pattern, and can thus verify to various devices that the user is who he says he is. Through a company called Bionym, which they have founded, they will unveil it to the world in June.
Bionym’s first plan was to sell just the heart-identification software, in the hope manufacturers of phones, tablets and the like would embed into their devices a sensor that could use it. This would mean that, like James Bond’s gun, such machines could be operated only when the owner was touching them. The firm’s managers, though, quickly realised that persuading device-makers to do this was never going to happen. So instead, the company developed its own device: a wristband called Nymi that talks to other machines by way of Bluetooth and tells them that the person wearing it is, indeed, who he says he is. Nymi might thus, for example, replace passwords for its wearer’s computers. It might unlock and start a car. And it could even stand in for house keys or be used to verify financial transactions that currently need a PIN.
You can’t lose your heart
Biometric recognition systems, from hand geometry, via face recognition and fingerprints, to iris recognition, are becoming more common. But none has yet swept the board, partly for the reason Bionym found when it tried to get device-makers to put recognition hardware in their machines: manufacturers do not want the expense and hassle of doing that. Nymi gets rid of this problem.
ECGs are also difficult to clone. Cloning a biometric marker takes two steps. First it must be “skimmed”. In the case of an ECG, this means duping someone into touching a surface that can record his heartbeat. That makes ECGs more secure than, say, fingerprints, which can be recovered from nearly anything that has been touched.
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