Authentication System Would Use the Body to Secure Guns and Gadgets

With Microchip’s BodyCom technology, the human body is the medium for short-range authentication.

Simpler authentication systems could help keep guns and power tools safe.

Leave a gun lying around, and anyone who picks it up could fire it. That could change, though, with newly announced technology from Microchip Technology, which uses the body as part of a secure authentication process.

BodyCom, which the company announced last week, is a short-range communication system that uses the body as a wire between two points. In the example above, those points would be a little fob in your pocket and a touch pad on the firearm.

The chip maker, which is based in Chandler, Arizona, believes its authentication method is cheaper, simpler, and usually less power-hungry than others—all factors it’s hoping will encourage device makers to add it to products.

Edward Dias, Microchip’s security business development manager, says the company envisions a slew of potential security applications for BodyCom. With the technology in place, you could unlock your front door just by touching the doorknob; power tools and guns could be secured so that only a user with the right fob could get them to work. (The idea is similar to the RFID- or biometric-equipped “smart gun” that some lawmakers are mulling.) BodyCom could be used for pets, too: a collar-mounted fob could let a pet open the doggy door with its nose or paw, but unwanted animals wouldn’t be able to get in.

Already, Dias says, a company in Italy is using BodyCom to ensure that motorcyclists cannot zoom off bare-headed. The key fobs are incorporated into helmets, while the handlebars of the motorcycle act as the base station.

As Dias acknowledges, the idea isn’t entirely new— “personal area networks” that use the body to enable the exchange of data between electronics were described by Thomas Zimmerman in his 1980 thesis at MIT, for example. But it hasn’t yet been popularized.

BodyCom uses capacitive coupling to transmit a signal between a pocket-sized fob and a base station, with your body in the middle. If you’re wearing or carrying the fob and you touch a base station embedded in, say, a doorknob, the base sends a 125-kilohertz signal via your body to the fob to wake it up. The fob then sends an eight-megahertz authentication signal back to the base to approve your access.

Dias says those two frequencies are used because they couple well with the human body. While the current BodyCom setup requires a user to touch the panel, it is possible to set it up so the user can be authenticated from a few inches away, he says.

The technology, which would cost $3 to $4 to add to a device, can’t currently determine whether the person with the key fob is the person who should be granted authorization. But Dias says Microchip could add that capability in the future.

Beyond home door locks, power tools, and firearms, BodyCom could show up in passive keyless entry systems like the ones on some cars, Dias hopes. He also envisions a body-area network in which a medical patient covered in various sensors could wirelessly communicate data back to a main unit.

Chris Harrison, a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute and cofoundere of a startup whose touch-screen technology can distinguish knuckle from fingertip taps, is thinking in the same vein. As we wear more and more electronic devices—like a smart watch or Google Glass—he can imagine BodyCom allowing these gadgets to communicate with each other using the body as a medium.

This could be more intelligent and more energy efficient than Bluetooth, he says, since taking the fob out of your pocket effectively disconnects you from the network.

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