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In the Future We’ll All Be Identified by Our 'Brainprints'

The future is…terrifying?
Image: Flickr/Surian Soosay

Have you ever encountered an innovation in science that just forces you to think, "Damn, we really are living in the future"?

Well, a new breakthrough in human "brainprints" is about as futuristic as it gets. Whether or not it leaves you distressed, excited, or a healthy combination of the two is completely up to you.

A team of psychology and computer engineering professors at Binghamton University was able to successfully match test subjects to their uniquely identifying brain waves—or, brainprints—with 100 percent accuracy.


In a study titled "CEREBRE: A Novel Method for Very High Accuracy Event-Related Potential Biometric Identification," published in The IEEE Transactions on Information Forensics and Security, researchers set out to test the reliability of biometric identifiers within a group of 50 people.

Each subject was fitted with an EEG headset called an "electroencephalogram" that measures the electrical activity in a person's brain through electrodes attached to their scalp. Subjects were then shown a series of 500 images that were specifically chosen to elicit neural responses, such as "a slice of pizza, a boat, Anne Hathaway, the word 'conundrum.'"

What the study's authors discovered was each person's brain wave responses to the visual stimuli were unique enough to identify them by—very much like fingerprints or DNA.

"When you take hundreds of these images, where every person is going to feel differently about each individual one, then you can be really accurate in identifying which person it was who looked at them just by their brain activity," lead author Sarah Laszlo, an assistant professor of psychology, said in a statement.

While the team of researchers didn't conduct their study for any particular security application, the IEEE journal in which it was published exemplifies the future technologies that surveillance entities are likely eager to harness. It's not illogical to wonder, then, how brainprints can and will be used to surveil citizens outside of the lab.


"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"

Brain biometrics present new opportunities for more soundproof methods of identification where current forms are faltering. The accuracy of fingerprints, for example, is being reevaluated on a federal level after the forensic community challenged their reliability as scientifically sound evidence. Fingerprints are also capable of being stolen, in bulk, by malicious hackers or foreign governments, consequently putting victims at risk for the rest of their lives.

But how easy is it for someone to steal your brain waves? According to a team of security researchers who tested this very question, it's difficult, but not impossible. Using the same EEG headsets employed in the Binghamton University study, the group was able to "deduce digits of PIN numbers, birth months, areas of residence and other personal information" after showing test subjects a set of corresponding images. However, their results were often imprecise and didn't produce the type of data that could be stolen to commit crimes such as impersonating a stranger.

"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. Fingerprints are 'non-cancellable.' Brainprints, on the other hand, are potentially cancellable. 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," Laszlo said.

The study's authors don't believe that brainprints will ever be mass-produced for low security applications, but they did propose a use case for personnel authorization at "high-security physical locations, like the Pentagon or Air Force Labs."

Brainprints, at their most basic level, remind us that who we are is really our brains. And the consequences of having our neurology compromised are pretty horrifying. This doesn't mean we should all go don our tinfoil hats now, but worrying about the implications of technology that brings the future right to our doorstep is probably smart thinking.