Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
From selfies to heartbeat recognition, bioengineering is the future of digital security.
Our digital lives require a great deal of user names and passwords. One study estimated that the average person has to recall 10 passwords per day. Between banking, shopping, and dating online, it can be a hassle to remember all of that login information—and using the same passwords over and over leaves us vulnerable to identity theft.
In fact, in a 2014 Gallup poll, the majority of Americans reported that they feared credit card theft more than any other crime. The same survey found that eleven percent of Americans reported that they or a family member had been digitally hacked in the past year. Now more than ever, Americans are searching for a way to keep their identities safe.
The hack-proof solution might not be any combination of keyboard characters, or even emojis—it could be our own bodies. The new frontier of password protection is bioengineered: We’ll be protecting our bank accounts with our fingerprints, heartbeats, and more.
In addition to massaging the egos of pouting millennials, the selfie may have a practical use. MasterCard is now using facial recognition to prevent identity theft. This fall, the company will allow 500 cardholders to snap a digital self-portrait in lieu of a inputting a password to make an online purchase. First, customers will need to download the MasterCard app. Then, at checkout, they’ll look into the phone’s camera, blink once, and snap a selfie. According to the security team at MasterCard, the blinking motion ensures that an outsider cannot fraudulently access an account simply by holding up a picture of the account holder.
You’re probably familiar with Apple’s Touch ID system, which the company released along with the iPhone 5S in 2013. Now, other companies are developing even more futuristic fingerprint technologies. This March, Qualcomm released a 3D fingerprint authentication system that can detect all of the minute details of one’s fingerprint—sweat pores, ridges, and even layers of skin—in order to protect your print from being stolen or copied. The secret is Qualcomm’s use of ultrasonic technology, which uses sound to capture the 3D image. It’s the same technology that Qualcomm is currently developing for the U.S. government, and could soon be available on your mobile phone. The company predicts that their technology will be incorporated into commercial devices later this year.
Last year, Canadian tech startup Nymi released the Nymi Band, which records a user’s heartbeat and uses it as a biometric for verifying his or her identity. Since no two heartbeats are the same, the system eliminates the risk of your account being hacked. (Even if your heart beats faster due to increased stress or physical activity, the waves of your heartbeat have a unique shape that’s determined by your physiology.) Andrew D'Souza, the company’s President, believes the band may one have broader applications, replacing things like car keys, house keys, and even boarding passes.
Companies such as Wells Fargo are developing voice-recognition apps, hoping to present their users with a relatively foolproof security system. If MasterCard’s testing process is any indication, their mission is bound to be a success. MasterCard President Ajay Bhalla maintains that the combination of both voice and facial recognition software yielded a 98 percent verification rate, proving that passwords are no match for the intrinsic characteristics that make you uniquely you.