Heartbeats May Soon Replace Fingerprints for Encrypting Information

Scientists are studying the possibility of using heartbeats as biometric authentication to grant patients access to their electronic health records.

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Fingerprints are currently the most widely used login parameters for biometric authentication, with iris scans and voice recognition being employed when additional security is required. But now a study is postulating the probability of using an individual's heartbeat to encrypt personal data.

Researchers from the Binghamton State University in New York used electrocardiogram (ECG) signals to encrypt, and subsequently access patients' medical records. Their reasoning for this focused application of the new login technique is prudent.

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The ECG signal mentioned in the study is unique for each person. It's based on the physiology of the heart -- its size and shape and the orientation of the valves. The signals, obtained in the form of waves, remain the same regardless of the rate at which the individual's heart is beating.

In their study, the team of researchers considered a likely scenario in the future in which all patients will be outfitted with wearable devices aimed at healthcare along with fitness and other uses. These devices will continuously collect and transmit physiological data from the wearer to their doctors. The ECG signals, which are required for most clinical diagnoses, will be recorded during transmission and used to encrypt and decrypt medical records -- thereby eliminating the need to create specific encryption keys from scratch while increasing security and privacy at the same time.

"There have been so many mature encryption techniques available, but the problem is that those encryption techniques rely on some complicated arithmetic calculations and random key generations," said Zhanpeng Jin, a co-author of the paper titled "A Robust and Reusable ECG-based Authentication and Data Encryption Scheme for eHealth Systems."

Using a person's heartbeat as a password does come with limitations. ECG signals are not only more sensitive than other forms of biometric identification, they can also undergo changes due to ageing or heart ailments. The researchers are now working out a way to incorporate these variables and advance the use of ECG as a primary authentication method (it is currently effective only as a secondary authentication).

But despite the current challenges they face, the researchers are confident that heart data will improve and even surpass other biometric methods over the next few years.

"This research will be very helpful and significant for next-generation secure, personalized healthcare," said Zhanpeng Jin.

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