Snowflakes get a bad rap these days, but it is true that we’re all unique – inside and out. It has long been thought that the whorls, arches and loops of our fingerprints are completely individual, eyes are the windows to the soul, we each have our own genetic code, and humans are built to recognize even minor differences in facial features. But who would have guessed that the shape and size of our heart could be just as distinctive, and therefore used as a tool to track us?
Biometrics – biological measurements – are coming to the fore as scientists invent new ways to detect and track our unique body signatures. LN has recently discussed the emerging trends in facial recognition and iris scanning, but monitoring internal organs may be the next step. Heart scans are medically useful things, and wearable fitness trackers have been used for some time to track cardiac data, but could your individual heartbeat one day be tracked by airport security, or, perhaps, used to unlock your cell phone?
British company B-Secur gave the U.S. a taste of its heart monitor technology at the January 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The HeartKey system takes medical-grade electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) recordings to track users’ health and wellbeing… as well as confirming an individual’s identity by using their unique readings. The remarkable thing about B-Secur is its attempt to sell HeartKey equally as a health support system and a security scanner, with applications such as car-theft prevention. According to the company, a HeartKey device would be fitted into a steering wheel for keyless ignition upon detection of its owners’ personal heartbeat, with the bonus of tracking their cardio activity during the drive. It could promote wellness by detecting drowsiness behind the wheel, stress levels related to road rage and so on. It could even make recommendations like turning on some soothing music.
“HeartKey’s algorithms offer greater security that protects not only our devices and vehicles, but more importantly, our physical health and safety,” said Alan Foreman, B-Secur CEO. The company is reportedly in talks with steering wheel manufacturers to have the monitors installed directly into automobiles. It also has a range of military and industrial applications in mind; ECG trackers could be “embedded into clothing and uniforms, securing and protecting areas and individuals,” according to the website.
While the health applications are emphasized, the business’s name implies that these “security” features are its core mission. Heart information is more secure than other biometrics, says the company:
“Everyone’s cardiac rhythm is completely unique, which makes ECG a powerful metric to determine identity. This uniqueness arises from a range of factors, including the shape and size of the heart and its orientation and position within the body. Unlike first generation external biometrics such as fingerprint, ECG offers inherently more security as an internal metric that is much more difficult to harvest or fraudulently recreate.”
Of course, this also means an individual’s data can be reliably tracked at a highly invasive level.
It’s So Convenient
B-Secur are not the first people to research heartbeat biometrics – in 2017, University of Buffalo researchers developed a security system that identified people by measuring the unique dimensions of their heart, a process that takes eight seconds. Wenyao Xu, the lead author of the study, said the Cardiac Scan system could be used to unlock phones, computers, and help with airport security. “We would like to use it for every computer because everyone needs privacy … Logging-in and logging-out are tedious,” he said.
While some have suggested that exposure to electromagnetic fields can damage cardiovascular health, Xu downplayed the possible dangers and said that the scanner’s signal could not interfere with heart activity. “We are living in a Wi-Fi surrounding environment every day, and the new system is as safe as those Wi-Fi devices,” he said. “The reader is about 5 milliwatts, even less than 1 percent of the radiation from our smartphones.”
Cardiac Scan is able to track people from up to 30 meters away, meaning that a person would not necessarily know that they had been identified or their data collected. It can also monitor people on an ongoing basis, unlike other biometrics such as iris or facial recognition which require “visual” contact on the part of the scanner. Xu told Gizmodo:
“Continuous and remote authentication is the dream of this community. We really want to know who people are [up to] 500 meters away. The current convention is to use face detection or recognition, but this [cardiac scanning technology] is the first time to bring truly hard biometrics from the remote sensing perspective … If people don’t want to identify themselves, they can wear a scarf, hat or sunglasses to [hide] their identity. But with the heart scan, there’s no way to escape. Everyone is naked under this radar sensor.”
The heart – it’s the key to so many aspects of our personal lives including our health, our stress levels, our feelings, and perhaps even intuition or deeper truths. Apparently, it could also make a good substitute for phone passcodes and car keys. Does it make sense to monitor this vital organ on a daily basis? Are biometric heart scanners going to make life more convenient and act as a life-saving way to track cardio wellbeing over time, or will they be a surveillance tool that is truly impossible to escape?