Scientists turned the human body into a data network to advance cyber security

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Security and especially cyber security are all going to need new technologies to keep people and systems safe, and this new “human network” is yet another example of human ingenuity in action.

 

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In this past year alone I’ve talked about how researchers in the US have been trying to develop technologies that literally turn human beings into biological computing devices and nodes on a network – whether it’s by successfully turning human cells into biological dual core computers, finding new ways to connect human tissues to traditional computer networks, or linking biological and artificial neurons together, or even by linking people together telepathically to create the world’s first so called organic computer systems. Science fiction eat your heart out.

 

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Now, in another twist of the sci-fi tale other scientists in the US have found a way to turn the human body into a Body Area Network or a “wire” that transmits data around the body, and when I say wire you can think of it in much the same terms as we talk about electrical wiring – after all, the human body does basically run on electricity and you can think of neurons, for example, as the body’s wiring.

Over the past few years many of us have become accustomed to unlocking phones and computers with our fingerprints, but scientists are working on touch technologies that could facilitate much more than that. A new prototype device from a team at Purdue University offers an interesting look at the possibilities in this area, with the scientists imagining it could one day be used to make payments, enter passwords and send photos through a single touch. And while I know you’re probably going to say paying with your fingerprint or something like that is already a reality this is a very different type of concept because unlike using your fingerprint to pay this new system is sending data through your body that can be read by the devices you’re using.

 

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The technology developed by the Purdue team is similar to a number of other data transmission technologies we’ve looked at recently that are designed to offer better security than traditional Bluetooth. By using low-power electromagnetic fields to transmit data through the human body instead, these types of technologies make it harder for hackers to intercept the signal, while opening up some interesting possibilities at the same time.

The Purdue team’s prototype system is a watch-like device worn on the wrist that takes data and sends it via the human body using low-frequency electromagnetic signals. Only when the wearer’s finger comes into physical contact with a receiver does it create a connection for the data to travel across, meaning otherwise the signal remains safely confined to the body.

“We’re used to unlocking devices using our fingerprints, but this technology wouldn’t rely on biometrics – it would rely on digital signals,” says Shreyas Sen, a Purdue associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Imagine logging into an app on someone else’s phone just by touch. Whatever you touch would become more powerful because digital information is going through it.”

 

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The device needs further development, but its software could be programmed to convey certain pieces of data, such as credit card information to make payments, or authentication data to gain access to a building instead of using a key fob.

“You wouldn’t have to bring a device out of your pocket,” Sen says. “You could leave it in your pocket or on your body and just touch.”

However, the researchers say they also need to develop a way for the data transfer to be turned off to ensure that valuable information isn’t transferred to all surfaces that are equipped to receive the signals. But when such hurdles are overcome, the team sees great potential for the technology.

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“Anytime you are enabling a new hardware channel, it gives you more possibilities,” says Sen. “Think of big touch screens that we have today – the only information that the computer receives is the location of your touch. But the ability to transfer information through your touch would change the applications of that big touch screen.”

The research was published in the journal Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, and you can hear from the scientists involved in the project in the video below.

Source: Purdue University

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