Brainprints: A Cutting-Edge Identification Method Or A Creepy Future Technology?

Asif Khan

If you have 100 people in a room and show all of them the same picture of Kim Kardashian, the response brainwaves generated by those 100 people would be completely different from each other.

In other words, any number of human beings looking at the same picture would produce brainwaves that are unique to them. So unique that each person's brainwaves, or "brainprints," could be used to authenticate their identity.

That is the concept behind brainprints, a technique for identifying people by their brain activity. Brainprint is the brainchild of researchers at Binghamton University, New York.

As part of their brain biometrics study, the researchers tracked the brain activity of 50 people wearing EEG headsets as they watched 500 different images pass before them on a computer screen.

There was a rationale behind the choice of these images, study lead and assistant professor of psychology Sarah Laszlo explained to the Huffington Post.

"The images were chosen with the major design principle being that we wanted them to elicit very different responses from person to person. Some images we selected on the basis of a pre-study we did where we asked participants to tell us about foods and celebrities that they loved and hated; from that study we selected foods and celebrities that were 'polarizing.'"

According to the researchers, brainprints are a much more accurate and foolproof way of identifying people as compared to fingerprint identification. Fingerprints can be stolen or people could lose their fingers or hands, and nothing can be done about it because you can't create a new fingerprint. In that sense, fingerprints are "non-cancellable."

Brainprints, on the other hand, are "cancellable." In the (still futuristic) event of a brain hack, when your brain data is compromised, the old brainprint can still be cancelled and "reset," just like passwords are reset. The resetting would involve showing a new set of images to the subject and recording the unique brainwaves produced, thus generating a new brainprint.

The most obvious application is in the field of security, although only at very high levels. According to study co-author Zhanpeng Jin, brainprints can be used for authorization of personnel at "high-security physical locations, like the Pentagon or Air Force Labs where there aren't that many users that are authorized to enter."

Regulating entry would not be the only application. The researchers also envisage the use of brainprints in the area of cognitive biometrics wherein the "mental state" of a person would be assessed, Laszlo told the Huffington Post.

"That means not just evaluating whether the person trying to log in to the system is who they say they are, but also whether they are cognitively fit to have access to the sensitive information. As an example, a system like that would not allow an air traffic controller to enter their system if they were too tired, or distracted, even if their identity was authenticated."

Online magazine Motherboard gave an Orwellian twist to the technology, wondering if brainprints could be used in the future by security agencies for surveillance of citizens.

"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."
"It fascinates me how science manages to ignore any risks to people in this kind of research. Apparently the idea of intrusion into a very personal space, in any form, just isn't an issue. Many researchers, in fact, seem to lack any interest in possible abuses of new science. Imagine using brainprints in a totalitarian state, or for "covert" national security a la the conspiracy theories. Imagine a 'secret government' creating a record of brainprints to use against its citizens."