Gordon Smith

Phone Is Where the Heart Is: How Science Hopes to Make Your Devices Even Safer

As it stands, we have a great fear of allowing our devices more access to parts of our body. However, that’s not cool, as they’re here to worm their way into our hearts. Literally.


You use your fingerprint almost everyday to unlock your devices. At least, if you bought your device in the last few years. Of course, technology marches onward and soon our faces will become the latest and greatest way to keep our precious files safe from prying eyes.

You’d think we’d reach the ultimate in technological security – after all, have you ever tried to fake someone else’s face? It’s not easy – but science thinks otherwise.

Taking the idea of putting your heart into everything perhaps a little too literally, scientists at the 23rd Annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Communication – or MobiCom – in Utah, will present a new method of computational identification: through measuring a user’s heart.

The to-be-unveiled system uses low-level Doppler radar – which the scientists attest to having less health risk than a Wi-Fi signal – to measure a user’s heart, and will then continue to monitor to make sure no one else has started using the device.

“We would like to use it for every computer, because everyone needs privacy,” explains Wenyao Xu, PhD, the study lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

He believes the system is a “safe and potentially more effective” alternative to passwords and other current biometric identifiers.

“Logging in and logging out are tedious.”

Though currently the system is geared towards the computer market, the scientists hope to see it eventually used for smartphones and at airport security.


The use of the heart in biometrics systems is not a new idea. “But no one has done a non-contact remote device to characterize our hearts’ geometry traits for identification,” Xu says.


Spruiking the low signal strength of the technology, Xu explained the low safety risk to users. “We are living in a Wi-Fi surrounding environment everyday, and the new system is as safe as those Wi-Fi devices. The reader is about 5 milliwatts, even less than 1 percent of the radiation from our smartphones.”

The system currently needs around 8 seconds to scan a user’s heart for the first time, and from that point on will continuously recognize that same heart. The system, having spent three years in development, makes use of the geometry of the heart, its shape and size, and how it moves in order to identify it.

“No two people with identical hearts have ever been found,” explains Xu. “People’s hearts also do not change shape, unless they suffer from serious heart disease,” he continues.

The use of the heart in biometrics systems is not a new idea. They have been used for almost a decade now, primarily with electrodes measuring electrocardiograph signals.

“But no one has done a non-contact remote device to characterize our hearts’ geometry traits for identification,” Xu says, before explaining the advantages such a system has over current biometric tools.

As a passive, non-contact device, users will not need to authenticate themselves whenever they log in – especially with the system’s constant monitoring of a user’s heart. That constant monitoring also means the device will cease operation if a different person is in front of it, thus eliminating the need for users to log off when they’re away.

Xu plans to miniaturize the system and have it installed into the corners of computer keyboards.

If employed in airport identification, a device could monitor a person up to 100 feet away.

Xu will present the paper, Cardiac Scan: A Non-contact and Continuous Heart-based User Authentication System, with his collaborators at MobiCom, billed as the flagship conference in mobile computing.


Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the bigwigs in government to account.

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