Skull-produced sounds could replace existing biometric authentication

The unique sound made by your skull, created by audio beamed through bone, can authenticate a user

Skull-produced sounds could replace existing biometric authentication
Credit: Stefan Schneegass, Youssef Oualil, Andreas Bulling

Are you happy with your on-device biometric fingerprint scanner? I’m not. The scanner on my most recent tablet has failed to unlock the device. The cause then was probably dirty hands coming in from the garage. I disabled that biometric experiment—likely never to be used again.

I'm not the only one who sometimes downgrades security in favor of ease of use. Half of passwords are more than 5 years old, a report found last year. And three-fourths of those surveyed then said they use duplicate passwords. Clearly not secure. The more complicated and consequently secure one makes the password, though, the harder it is to remember.

Scientists in Germany have a unique take on this problem. They say bone conduction could work instead. The unique sound made by your skull, created by sounds traveling through the bone, can authenticate the user, the researchers say.

Simply sending an audio clip through the bone matter via a special bone-conduction speaker adjacent to the head, and then picking up that white-noise sound moments later, after it’s traveled through the skull with a microphone, authenticates users.

The unique frequency created by the skull performs the identification. No clean, dry fingertips or password-remembering brainpower is required.

Now, you might think that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be all that elegant a solution. Are we going to be walking around with Google Glass-like smart glasses on our heads just to perform banking transactions? Wouldn’t a fingerprint impression be better in that case?

Well, that might be true for white collar tasks. But what about blue collar? The kinds of jobs when fingers covered in engine oil, for example, don’t work the biometric scanner could benefit.

Bone conduction might be a better alternative in that situation.

The market for wearable IoT

Bear in mind that wearable Internet of Things devices, such as smart glasses, may prove popular in future workspaces. The transportation industry, for example, has shown interest in using smart glasses to deliver repair manuals to technicians working on equipment. The eyepieces show the documents. That frees up hands to perform the technical work.

A number of technologies that place equipment on the head are about to enter the market, too. That gear, such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality headsets for gaming, already includes forms of speakers and microphones.

SkullConduct (PDF), as the scientists from the University of Stuttgart, Saarland University and Max Planck Institute for Informatics call their invention, could fit right in.

The search is on right now for new kinds of biometrics. A biometric keystroking algorithm is another form of authentication that could be geared towards certain kinds of workers. As with skull sounds for those with greasy fingers, keyboard strokes measured over time—including "dwell," which is the duration of the stroke, and "flight," which is the pause between strokes—could conceivably be used to authenticate office- or knowledge worker-type jobs.

Researchers are also experimenting with Emoji, the pictorial icons used by many younger mobile device users.

In addition, voice prints are being used to authenticate banking transactions, which has the benefit of creating a database of bad-guy voices. Those who try to game the system are recorded and their voice print comes back to haunt them if they ever end up in court.

And that’s the kind of thing you don’t get with passwords.

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