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We can all agree on the fact that in today’s advanced technological world, mere passwords are no longer safe. In a time when our lives are more digitized than ever, when an account being breached risks exposing everything from our banking information to our health records, that’s a problem. This has led to a surge in development of biometric identification systems.

A biometrics system identifies people the way that people identify one another: through intrinsic qualities like appearance, voice, or even the way a person walks. In addition to things like facial recognition and fingerprint scanning, there’s also a person’s unique “heartprint,” their smell, the subtle skin vibrations in a person’s face, throat, or chest when they speak, and even the shape of their butt.

Professor Zhanpeng Jin, a computer scientist at the University at Buffalo was intrigued by the concept and he and his team took it to the next level.

“We have so many students walking around with speakers in their ears. It led me to wonder what else we could do with them,” says Jin, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

This has led to the development of EarEcho, a biometric tool that uses modified wireless earbuds to authenticate smartphone users via the unique geometry of their ear canals.

The team took a pair of off-the-shelf earbuds and then modified them slightly; adding a microphone in the earbud which faces the wearer’s ear canal.

“When a sound is played by the earphone’s speaker into the user’s ear, the sound propagates through the ear canal and is reflected back to the built-in microphone in the earbud,” explained Yang Gao, a graduate student who worked on the project. “By analyzing the acoustic information of played sound and captured echo, which is highly related to the ear canals geometry, we extract the unique features from the user and then verify the user’s identity.”

The information gathered by the microphone is sent by the earbuds’ Bluetooth connection to the smartphone where it is analyzed.

A prototype of the EarEcho device device was able to identify users with 95% accuracy within a single second, while the score rose to 97.5% if it was able to keep monitoring them for three seconds.

As its most basic purpose, EarEcho can be used to unlock smartphones, thereby reducing the need for passcodes, fingerprints, facial recognition and other biometrics. On top of that, it would allow for constant re-verification.

“Think about that,” says Jin, “just by wearing the earphones, which many people already do, you wouldn’t have to do anything to unlock your phone.”

That means no need to keep unlocking the phone each time you take it out of your pocket. Another scenario might be for remote phone call-based authentication. Using technology like EarEcho, you could easily verify the identity of the person you’re speaking to.

“We are currently still working on improving the current EarEcho system, including increasing the accuracy, involving more subjects, and testing on different types of earbuds on the market,” Gao said.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that this product will be commercialized and make it to market, at least not any time soon.

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