For years fingerprints have served as the most personal form of identification, one that can’t be forgotten or “guessed” like a password or stolen like a social security number. Yet, it is just one of several methods of  biometric security conceived.

In recent years, mobile phone and laptop makers have begun to adopt facial recognition technology, as has the travel industry. Compared to other biometric techniques, however, facial recognition is less reliable – in part because facial expressions can change the way a face appears, as can lighting or external illumination. Among all biometric systems, facial recognition has the highest false acceptance and rejection rates.

A far more effective alternative to fingerprints is a retinal scan, which was first conceived in 1935 but not put into practice until the late 1970s, when the technology was developed that made reading of the retina possible. It is highly effective, and as a result retinal scanning is now utilized by several government agencies including the FBI, CIA and NASA.

Heart of Security

Both fingerprints and retinal scans have problems – notably in conditions or situations where gloves or eye protection are worn. Thus the search for an alternative that is as effective as fingerprints or retina scans has continued, and the answer could be found in something that has been a topic of popular music for decades – the heartbeat.

While pop singers might have written countless lyrics about heartbeats, one thing no song to date has noted is that each heartbeat is as unique as one’s fingerprints or retina. Now, Sandia National Laboratories has signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with New Mexico-based Aquila to develop a biometric security system that would be based on the human heartbeat. This system wouldn’t actually count the number beats, but instead would read the electrical activity of the individual’s heart.

“B-Secur’s HeartKey includes the ability to identify and authenticate an individual from their unique electrocardiogram signature,” said Steve Kadner, Aquila’s executive vice president, via a press release. “The objective for the new system is to meet or exceed the current fingerprint or iris readers for access control and position tracking purposes both operationally and economically.”

Unlike a fingerprint or retina scan a “wearable” device like a heart rate monitor will be necessary – and it can stream the heartbeat in real time to a sensor or other hardware. Aquila’s wearable device would work with software developed by U.K.-based B-Secur.

Under the terms of the CRADA, Sandia and Aquila expect to complete the development and testing of the prototype in a year. This is just one of several efforts to develop technology to read the electrical activity of the heart. Bionym, a spinoff of the University of Toronto has also been developing a device dubbed the Nymi, a small wearable device that uses electrocardiogram (ECG) to authenticate user identity.

Skip a Beat

Given that a wearable device is required questions how efficient ECG or heartbeats in general would be as a security tool. If the monitor’s battery dies or there is interference in the signals, the information couldn’t be verified. Likewise, because a sensor is being worn it could be hacked or possibly replicated.

The biggest issue might be the accessibility of other – less complex – forms of biometric security.

“There are so many other things that are easily accessible – fingerprints, eyes, face, ears, etc.,” said Jim McGregor, technology analyst at TIRIAS Research.

“If you want more security, you could even use those things together,” McGregor told ClearanceJobs.

The new research isn’t the only effort to create a biometric security monitor around the heartbeat. There had been a flurry of activity given the dramatic increase in wearables, in part driven by the latest fitness craze. This didn’t lead to security-focused products however.

“That had to do with the limitations of the sensor/mobile tech five years ago,” suggested Charles King, technology analyst at Pund-IT. “It’s a good example of an idea that hangs around waiting for the industry to catch up.”

“Growing interest in using the human heartbeat as a biometric identifier is due to an infection point – that smart band and smart watch technologies are reaching a point where devices can accurately read electrocardiogram signatures and easily transmit that information to authentication systems,” King added. “That’s been a something of a sticking point since initial research began in the 1990s.”

There could be some advantages, even if a wearable is required.

“On the plus side, ECG-focused solutions are more portable and may well be less expensive than those using iris scanning or fingerprint readers,which are often deployed in tandem for high security environments,” explained King. “If that turns out to be the case, commercial biometric ECG technology could be the ‘killer app’ that finally pushes smart watches into the mainstream.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.