Shape of things to comeElectronic "pets" to tackle identity theft problem

Published 2 May 2008

Forget passwords, PINs, or even biometric security measures; a new, if futuristic, solution is offered for the problem of identity theft: Electronic pets; the pets would recognize their owners’ voiceprint, fingerprints, or walking style; researchers say it will be important for owners to bond with and nourish their electronic pets by playing with them

Here is a futuristic solution to the growing problem of identity theft: Portable electronic “pets” able to recognize their owner’s voice and walking style. These pets could replace passwords and PINs as a way to keep personal details and accounts secure, say U.K. researchers. Supporters and skeptics alike agree that the advanced Tamagotchi plan still needs some work. Called “biometric daemons,” they borrow a concept from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, in which people are accompanied by an animal daemon which is a physical representation of their soul. Two U.K.-based researchers — Pamela Briggs, a psychologist and computer scientist at Northumbria University, and computer scientist Patrick Olivier at Newcastle University — think their take on the idea could match the security of biometric security systems, and avoid the privacy fears these systems raise. Instead of a person’s biometric signature being stored on a distant database, they would reside only in the daemon — a small gadget carried around by its owner. Colin Barras writes in New Scientist that as is the case with a real pet, that daemon would learn to imprint itself on its owner. After that it would thrive on the owners’ unique biometric signals, such as their voiceprint, fingerprints, or walking style. The human-daemon bond would be further cemented by games and interaction between the two. “Think how people bond with babies,” says Briggs. “You would do the same things with your daemon - cuddle it, stroke it, play verbal games.” In the presence of its owner, those nourishing signals make the daemon “happy” and able to verify the owner’s identity, just like a PIN or password.

A daemon separated from its owner would no longer receive nourishment in this way and would pine away and die, just as Pullman’s daemons die when separated from their humans. The idea might sound bizarre, but Olivier says that the elements needed to make a prototype daemon already exist. Accelerometers — similar to those used in the Nintendo Wiimote — could detect an individual’s gait (see this HSDW story about gait recognition biometrics), and speech recognition software could identify a unique voiceprint. “The main problem would be with battery life,” Olivier says. The researchers are reluctant to discuss exactly what form that the daemons would take. “The key thing is not the daemon’s physical form, but the way one interacts with it,” says Briggs. The daemon could be made in any form, she says, depending on what people relate to best — for example, a toy animal. If a person lost their daemon, their access to their online life would be lost too, says Briggs, so a way to get a new one would be needed.

Reaction to the idea from security experts is mixed. “Work on agents and daemons does not tend to be very rigorous, says John Daugman at the University of Cambridge. “It is difficult to find very much scientific or mathematical content to sink one’s teeth into.” Alec Yasinsac at Florida State University, Tallahassee, says the idea is interesting, but so far immature. “It is hard to predict its potential,” says Yasinsac. “For instance, to understand how nurturing could become irreversible.” A paper on biometric daemons was presented at the Usability, Psychology, and Security 2008 conference in San Francisco last month.