Will Perspiration be the Ultimate Password?

By Hamilton Waldron

In the future, the key to securing our electronic and personal devices may be our own sweat. Because much like fingerprints, sweat types differ by person — and the factors that contribute to determining an individual’s perspiration profile aren’t limited to variations in lifestyle habits alone.

Jan Halámek, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Albany, is working on a sweat-based authentication process for unlocking mobile and wearable devices. While still in development, it’s a security method that might eventually prove more effective than facial recognition technology. 

A Safer, More Secure Digital Age

Halámek’s methodology involves the analysis of skin secretions to generate an amino acid profile that only the owner of a device will be able to access. The profile would be stored in the device and utilized for identification if any attempt is made to unlock it.

Each person’s perspiration is distinctive, but the reasons why are many. For instance, the things we eat, our environment, the genes that determine our metabolism and other factors all contribute to the unique mix of complex chemicals that comprise our sweat.

Halámek asserts that this new form of security could completely redefine the authentication process for electronic devices. Because the proprietary properties of each individual’s sweat DNA cannot easily be hacked, Halámek believes his work will yield a foolproof security method. 

More Secure Than a Password or PIN

To properly construct an amino acid profile, the device would determine a monitoring period to allow for the device owner’s sweat levels to be continuously measured throughout the day. Halámek has acknowledged that his lab is still figuring out how frequently the personal device would need to recalibrate.

When asked about the threat of hackers “stealing” sweat, Halámek explains that such a tactic would prove impractical because sweat decomposes and doesn’t remain stable for very long. Compared to passwords and PINs, which can be obtained simply by peering over someone’s shoulder, the sophistication of perspiration-based security exceeds that of traditional security measures. As he points out, “Metabolization is not constant. It is not a Social Security number.” 

Beyond Electronic Security 

Applications for the signature of our own sweat could go well beyond securing devices. In time, sweat measurement could prove to be an effective diagnostic tool for personalized medicine; the increase or decrease of metabolites caused by illnesses might even produce real-time updates on particular medical conditions.

Using sweat for device verification could make life easier for those with certain disabilities as well, especially for people unable to move their fingers. And few would complain about never having to memorize a password again.

Using Biomarkers to Catch Criminals 

Despite the fact that Halámek’s research is largely focused on cybersecurity, some of his findings overlap with other ongoing research. For instance, some studies suggest that testing biomarkers might be a viable way to fight crime.

Certainly Halámek and his team believe that it’s all about the biomarkers when it comes to determining human attributes. By testing physical evidence like fingerprints or blood left behind at crime scenes, they assert that key characteristics of potential criminals could be detected within minutes, including age range, gender, and ethnicity. 

The Future Depends on More Funding 

Halámek has already successfully tested the new cybersecurity method in his lab, so the next step, which will require more time and money, will involve collaboration with an engineer. Halámek has already secured some additional funding and his team is in the process of creating proposals to get smartphone makers involved.

While the technology is not yet ready for commercial use, its ongoing development is a promising sign of new, even stronger security measures to emerge in the near future.