Brainwaves and 'Emotional ID' Could Replace Passwords and PINs

Scientists suggest an individual's brainwaves may be unique enough to act as identification. TOM BARRICK, CHRIS CLARK, SGHMS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

It can seem like not a week goes by without another story of hacking, identity theft or other cybersecurity malfeasance. Last year a team of researchers at Binghamton University published an article describing a breakthrough in electronic identification that might eventually replace passwords, PIN numbers and perhaps even fingerprint scans. They recorded the brain activity of 50 people as they looked at 500 images, ranging from a slice of pizza to actress Anne Hathaway. They found that individual subjects' brains reacted so differently to each of the images, that computer software was able to analyze the response patterns and use them to identify a person's "brainprint" with 100-percent accuracy.

As Sarah Laszlo, assistant professor of psychology at Binghamton University, explained in an interview at the time, brainprints have advantages over digital fingerprint scans. If a fingerprint scan is stolen, the person whose finger it recorded is permanently compromised, but a stolen brainprint is a digital object, not a physical, visual one, and simply could be erased and reset.

While we're waiting for someone to develop and market a brainprint identification system, another scientist may have developed an intriguing variation of brainwave ID. According to a press release issued by journal publisher Inderscience, researcher Violeta Tulceanu at the University of Iasi in Romania is developing a system that analyzes a user's brainwaves not just to verify identity, but to evaluate his or her mental state as well. The idea is to develop a sort of emotional fingerprint for each person — that is, the brainwave patterns that he or she experiences when experiencing happiness, fear or other emotions.

Such a system might deny access if it spots that a person is acting under duress — say, if a robber is forcing him or her to use an automated teller machine or open an electronic lock on a door. It also might detect that a user can't act responsibly because of being drunk or high on drugs.

Tulceanu's article in the International Journal of Advanced Intelligence Paradigms notes that an emotion-based brainwave identification system could become more sophisticated over time, as it gathered more and more data about a person's emotions. As Tulceanu writes in the abstract: "This type of authentication has applications in fields such as the military, e-learning, health, etc., where it is necessary to be able to establish whether the user was acting responsibly and of his own accord."