Your Body as Password for Your Mobile Devices

Ever since personal computer users first began sharing files with each other, the security of their machines has been a subject of concern, since even a file obtained from a friend might contain malicious code hidden within an application or document, without the sharer’s knowledge. When billions of users started accessing the Internet, the threat of one’s computer being infected by a virus, Trojan horse, or malware increased exponentially, and a huge cottage industry of antivirus and anti-malware software was born.

With the advent and widespread acceptance of smartphones, consumers have grown more concerned about the safety of the private information stored in their smartphones and tablets than they are about the same threats to their notebooks and desktop systems. This is not surprising, since the technical capabilities of modern mobile devices far surpass those of desktop computers and notebooks of the not-too-distant past. This concern is reasonable, since our mobile devices are designed to be network-accessible at all times, leaving them vulnerable to attack on many fronts.

What is surprising is that there has been relatively little effort, or for that matter, interest in the kind of security software that virtually every Windows or Android desktop or notebook has installed. Instead, the emphasis has been more upon hardware-based security measures. The industry remains in its infancy, since there exists little uniformity in the manner by which access to different mobile devices is achieved. The inevitable growth of the industry is hastened by hackers’ ever-increasing sophistication in bypassing commonly used, character-driven security measures such as passwords.

Enter the Field of Biometrics

Biometrics is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the measurement and analysis of unique physical or behavioral characteristics (as fingerprint or voice patterns) especially as a means of verifying personal identity.” Given the computing power of modern processors, it would seem a relatively simple task for even a basic smartphone to analyse physical landmarks and artifacts sufficiently to provide effective security measures. The shortcoming is not in the processors themselves, however, but rather in the input devices that collect those landmarks and artifacts. Fingerprint or early retinal scans, for example, require a resolution level that is presently not sufficiently scalable to fit within mobile devices, and require a level of constantly-available power that would drain the tiny batteries in such devices in short order. One company, Fujitsu, has developed a retinal scan technology that shows promise, but is, as yet, unavailable in production devices. Apple’s fingerprint-recognition feature in the iPhone 6 has proved to be somewhat less reliable than desired, but will likely show improvement in subsequent versions, driven in part by competitors’ publicised intent to offer fingerprint recognition in the not too distant future.

Search engine behemoth Yahoo, however, is taking an altogether different approach to biometrics, one that functions well using the lower-resolution (and less power-hungry) scanning hardware currently available in many smartphones. Codenamed Bodyprint, the technology measures different body parts, such as the ear or position of the user’s hand, to provide reliable and secure identification scans. Most people don’t realize that the configuration of a person’s ear is as unique as a fingerprint, and the mapping software used in Yahoo’s system analyses significantly larger physical characteristics than those analysed by fingerprint or retinal scans. An added benefit is that the process of identification can be affected without any special efforts on the part of the user, for example, by scanning the ear automatically when the phone is placed next to the user’s ear, or scanning the geometry of the user’s hand as he or she grips the phone. While the Bodyprint system remains in development, and is not projected to be incorporated in devices for some time, it does represent a positive step.

Given the pace at which technology has advanced in recent years, it is not unreasonable to expect that a viable, reliable biometric answer to the problem of securing our smartphones will emerge in the not-too-distant future. Better still, it will likely make users’ previous security-related actions seem as quaint as does a DOS command appear to a modern Windows or Mac computer customer.

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