A collective of engineers at the University of Washington’s Networks and Mobile Systems Lab have discovered a way to pass a four-digit code through human skin using everyday technology, lending itself to exciting concepts such as unlocking a door or a safe just by touching it. Sure, this could be achieved with a fingerprint sensor on a door or safe handle, but this on-body transmission is achieved using simple tech that already exists, with no fingerprint detection kit required on the receiver.
How can a human body transmit a password?
To conduct this research, touchpads were used in conjunction with fingerprint readers to create signals that travel through the entire body via the skin. A variety of touchpads were used in the research for comparison, including the iPhone 6S (which sent the most powerful signal) and the IBM Thinkpad (which had the quickest transfer rate).
The US research team found that a person just needs to touch the transmitter while also touching the receiver in order for the data – in this case, a four-digit passcode – to be transmitted to the receiver, which will then unlock whatever locked device the individual is touching, if the passcode is correct. This new technology could be utilised in many ways.
Why not use custom hardware?
If this experiment was conducted using custom hardware, much stronger signals and faster speeds could have been achieved. So, why didn’t they take this route? Vikram Iyer, one of the research paper’s authors, explained:
Our focus here was trying to find a way we could reuse an existing device. One of the main problems with adopting this kind of technology into a commercial application is that there’s already so much included in a phone. Any device manufacturer wouldn’t add another radio, because that would take up power, or space that they could use to make the battery a little bigger.
Without custom hardware, the team still achieved solid results, which highly benefit this area of study and research.
So, what are the benefits?
Unlike wireless technology, this type of transmission can’t be intercepted in the air, making it far more secure. Also of note: using electromagnetic noise that already exists means that the risks posed to human health are no more than the general use of a mobile phone or a computer.
However, if somebody was to touch you and touch the receiver, they could also use your passcode on your intended device or object, so there is plenty of research to go in this fascinating field of study.