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Summary:

Pills, tattoos, scans and smart implants — as these technologies grow, will they become the keys to our digital world?

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photo: GigaOM via Thinkstock

In a post over the weekend, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton touched on a startling concept: in the age of ingestible computing and wearable technology, are our bodies going to serve as passwords for next-generation technology?

Of course, one way for people to become passwords is to eat technology. Ingestible biosensors, like the ones advanced by Proteus Digital Health. While these pills are specifically meant to serve as biosensors that help with diagnose medical problems — like a patient’s failure to take medication — and communicate results via smartphone, this technology could eventually become a way to identify a person and communicate that to gadgets.

Bilton outlines the implications: “Once that pill is in your body, you could pick up your smartphone and not have to type in a password. Instead, you are the password. Sit in the car, and it will start. Touch the handle to your home door, and it will automatically unlock.”

But taking a pill with a tiny computer in it isn’t the only way to turn a body into a communication tool. Nokia and Motorola both have patents for tattoos that can give and receive information — whether it’s a gentle vibrate to alert a user that a phone is ringing or a Bluetooth-style connection to send information to a tablet. Subcutaneous implants — which doctors are utilizing to help patients with diabetes — can also be used to communicate with a gadget or other external sensor.

And the good, old-fashioned eye scan may be closer to reality than ever: the Fast Identity Online Alliance (FIDO), which is working to eliminate passwords altogether, has recently accepted iris scan company Eyelock into the fold. The password itself could simply be our unique eye patterns.

So, can it work logistically? One challenge is being able to co-opt enough sensor frequencies that we don’t have to worry about “crossing wires,” so to speak. Each biosensor would need a unique and stable way to communicate to devices — if your phone won’t unlock properly in a crowd of people, there’s no use to the technology.

There’s also pros and cons to each method. The benefits of a scan like Eyelock, for example, are fairly high levels of security and accuracy. However, every single device would require proprietary technology to conduct the scan, which is costly (consumer iris scanners cost in the thousands of dollars) and difficult to scale. Meanwhile, continually ingesting pills, which Proteus has yet to comment about in terms of cost, could conceivably cost up to $50 per pill — quite a lot to part with for 24 hours of monitoring. The alternative, recycling already-ingested pills, can make some squeamish.  Touching up tattoo sensors is an entirely different beast, and the concept hasn’t been priced out for a commercial audience yet.

Any way you look at it, every single one of these technologies is priced way out of the average person’s reach. But as they get smaller and more efficient (perhaps with the aid of batteries the size of a grain of sand), those costs will likely come down. So it may be only a matter of time before the financial concerns get resolved.

Then there’s the question about whether we even want to go down this road at all. In his article, Bilton spoke with the Electronic Frontier Foundation — the same organization who is working with Edward Snowden in the NSA scandal. It’s no surprise that there are vocal dissenters for this kind of concept, especially when we have the knowledge that where there is technology, there is a capacity to be hacked or tracked. As of right now, biosensors aren’t sophisticated enough to steal a person’s identity, but that could change.

The password will die — it’s only a matter of how and when. While there is nothing so unique as our bodies, plenty of questions need to be answered before they become the key to our doors, our cars and our cell phones.

  1. I think a thumb print would be cheaper & more palatable than a pill. It will probably end up just being personal choice from a list. With the options providing different degrees of security.

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