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An engineer in Japan has developed an always-on biometric security system for your car. If the system detects that you’re no longer “driving normally,” be it via carjacking, falling asleep, or intoxication, the engine cuts out. This system uses an EEG ? a brainwave scanner ? to transparently and continuously authenticate your ability to operate the vehicle.

In almost every case, security systems are based on one-time authentication methods: Once you’ve logged in once, you’re logged in until you log out. This makes a lot of sense for some activities, such as using your keycard to enter a restricted area, but in many other cases this actually introduces some significant security holes. For example, if you walk away from a logged in PC, anyone else could sit down and access your data. Likewise, anything that is continuously operated ? like a car or a machine ? should ideally have continuous authentication, in case you walk away, get carjacked, or collapse from a heart attack.

The problem is, continuous authentication is annoying. You can’t ask someone to key in a password every 30 seconds. What you really need is some way of transparently proving that it’s still you, without requiring some kind of input… such as an electroencephalogram (EEG). An EEG is a network of electrodes that attach to your scalp and monitor your brainwaves. Like your fingerprint, iris, or retina, your brainwaves form a unique pattern that can be used to identify you. We’ve previously discussed Berkeley’s work that uses an EEG to log you into a computer ? by thinking of specific passthoughts ? and now Isao Nakanishi and pals at Tottori University has done something similar with car driver authentication.

The system works by measuring the driver’s alpha-beta brainwaves with an EEG. The driver trains the system by performing “legitimate” driving, so that the system knows what your brainwaves look like when you’re driving normally and not under the effects of alcohol (or asleep). If you’re suddenly yanked out of the car by a hijacker, or if a thief tries to steal your car, the EEG knows it isn’t you ? and thus the engine stops, or refuses to start. The researchers also note that it should be possible to detect when you’re simply too tired to be driving.

The problem, of course, is that EEGs tend to be rather cumbersome. There are some simpler EEGs, such as the Emotiv brain-computer interface, but we’re still talking about something that you probably don’t want to wear while driving. I also suspect that, in this case, the researchers probably used one of those messy electrode mesh EEGs that require careful affixing to your entire dome. There’s no word on whether this tech will be commercialized.

In the future, though, an implant inside your skull could easily provide a constant EEG and beam the data wirelessly to your car, computer, smartphone, or any other device that needs constant authentication. It would be rather awesome if all of your machines and devices automatically unlocked when you got close to them, and locked when you walked away. Much more convenient than having to swipe your finger across the home button of your smartphone every time…

Sep 2013

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