Cyber security and authentication have been under attack in recent months as, seemingly every other day, a new report of hackers gaining access to private or sensitive information comes to light. Just recently, more than 500 million passwords were stolen when Yahoo revealed its security was compromised.

Securing systems has gone beyond simply coming up with a clever password that could prevent nefarious computer experts from hacking into your Facebook account. The more sophisticated the system, or the more critical, private information that system holds, the more advanced the identification system protecting it becomes.

Fingerprint scans and iris identification are just two types of authentication methods, once thought of as science fiction, that are in wide use by the most secure systems. But fingerprints can be stolen and iris scans can be replicated. Nothing has proven foolproof from being subject to computer hackers.

“The principal argument for behavioural, biometric authentication is that standard modes of authentication, like a password, authenticates you once before you access the service,” said Abdul Serwadda a cyber security expert and assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Texas Tech University.

“Now, once you’ve accessed the service, there is no other way for the system to still know it is you. The system is blind as to who is using the service. So the area of behavioural authentication looks at other user-identifying patterns that can keep the system aware of the person who is using it. Through such patterns, the system can keep track of some confidence metric about who might be using it and immediately prompt for re-entry of the password whenever the confidence metric falls below a certain threshold.”

One of those patterns that is growing in popularity within the research community is the use of brain waves obtained from an electroencephalogram, or EEG. Several research groups around the country have recently showcased systems which use EEG to authenticate users with very high accuracy.

However, those brain waves can tell more about a person than just his or her identity. It could reveal medical, behavioural or emotional aspects of a person that, if brought to light, could be embarrassing or damaging to that person. And with EEG devices becoming much more affordable, accurate and portable and applications being designed that allows people to more readily read an EEG scan, the likelihood of that happening is dangerously high.

“The EEG has become a commodity application. For $100 you can buy an EEG device that fits on your head just like a pair of headphones,” Serwadda said. “Now there are apps on the market, brain-sensing apps where you can buy the gadget, download the app on your phone and begin to interact with the app using your brain signals. That led us to think; now we have these brain signals that were traditionally accessed only by doctors being handled by regular people. Now anyone who can write an app can get access to users’ brain signals and try to manipulate them to discover what is going on.”

That’s where Serwadda and graduate student Richard Matovu focused their attention: attempting to see if certain traits could be gleaned from a person’s brain waves. They presented their findings recently at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Biometrics.

Brain waves and cyber security

Serwadda said the technology is still evolving in terms of being able to use a person’s brain waves for authentication purposes. But it is a heavily researched field that has drawn the attention of several federal organisations.

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