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Brain's Reaction to Certain Words Could Replace Passwords

Sarah Laszlo

Assistant Professor Sarah Laszlo in her Binghamton University laboratory.

Credit: Jonathan Cohen / Binghamton University

You might not need to remember complicated e-mail and bank account passwords much longer. According to a new study, the way your brain responds to certain words could be used to replace passwords.

In "Brainprint: Assessing the Uniqueness, Collectability, and Permanence of a Novel Method for ERP Biometrics," published in the journal Neurocomputing, researchers from Binghamton University observed the brain signals of 45 volunteers as they read a list of 75 acronyms, such as FBI and DVD. They recorded the brain's reaction to each group of letters, focusing on the part of the brain associated with reading and recognizing words, and found that participants' brains reacted differently to each acronym, enough that a computer system was able to identify each volunteer with 94 percent accuracy. The results suggest that brainwaves could be used by security systems to verify a person's identity.

According to Sarah Laszlo, assistant professor of psychology and linguistics at Binghamton University and co-author of "Brainprint," brain biometrics are appealing because they are cancelable and cannot be stolen by malicious means the way a finger or retina can.

"If someone's fingerprint is stolen, that person can't just grow a new finger to replace the compromised fingerprint — the fingerprint for that person is compromised forever," Laszlo says. "Fingerprints are 'non-cancellable.' Brainprints, on the other hand, are potentially cancelable. So, in the unlikely event that attackers were actually able to steal a brainprint from an authorized user, the authorized user could then 'reset' their brainprint."

Zhanpeng Jin, assistant professor at Binghamton University's departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Biomedical Engineering, doesn't see brainprint as the kind of system that would be mass-produced for low security applications (at least in the near future) but it could have important security applications.

"We tend to see the applications of this system as being more along the lines of high-security physical locations, like the Pentagon or Air Force Labs, where there aren't that many users that are authorized to enter, and those users don't need to constantly be authorizing the way that a consumer might need to authorize into their phone or computer," Jin says.

The Neurocomputing paper is authored by Blair C. Armstrong, Maria V. Ruiz-Blondet, Negin Khalifian, Kenneth J. Kurtz, Zhanpeng Jin, and Sarah Laszlo.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and Binghamton University's Interdisciplinary Collaboration Grants Program.


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