The way your brain reacts to an image of Anne Hathaway or a slice of pizza could identify you with greater accuracy than your own fingerprint.
That's what scientists at Binghamton University in New York recently found in a groundbreaking new study. They developed a technology for identifying individuals based on their brain activity -- and say it's astonishingly accurate.
The researchers recorded the brain activity of 50 volunteers using electroencephalogram (or EEG) headsets. While their brains were being scanned, the participants viewed a series of 500 images chosen to elicit unique responses, including a slice of pizza, actress Anne Hathaway, and the word "conundrum."
"The images were chosen with the major design principle being that we wanted them to elicit very different responses from person to person," Dr. Sarah Laszlo, a psychologist at the university and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "Some images we selected on the basis of a pre-study we did where we asked participants to tell us about foods and celebrities that they loved and hated; from that study we selected foods and celebrities that were 'polarizing.'"
It turned out that the participants' brains all reacted differently to each image. Based on their brain activity in response to the images, a computer program that the researchers devised was able to create a "brainprint" they said allowed them to identify each participant with 100 percent accuracy.
Brainprints may carry some potential advantages over fingerprints in identifying people. For instance, if a person's fingerprint is stolen, there's virtually nothing that can be done because fingerprints are "non-cancellable," Laszlo said.
"Brainprints, on the other hand, are potentially cancellable," she said. "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."
In other words, brainprints could be "reset" or replaced each time a person's brain reacts to a new image.
Does this mean that brain waves could be the future of security? There's a good chance that the system could one day be used in high-security areas like the Pentagon to protect sensitive or dangerous information, but that may be some years away.
In the more distant future, the researchers plan to extend these findings even further to inform what they call "cognitive biometrics," which can quickly evaluate a person's mental state.
"That means not just evaluating whether the person trying to log in to the system is who they say they are, but also whether they are cognitively fit to have access to the sensitive information," Laszlo said. "As an example, a system like that would not allow an air traffic controller to enter their system if they were too tired, or distracted, even if their identity was authenticated."
The findings are slated to appear in the July issue of the journal The IEEE Transactions on Information Forensics and Security.