When It Comes to Device Security, the Prescription is Progress: Password Pills

By Blaise McNamee February 11, 2014

You have likely read about Google’s recent decision to sell its Motorola handset division to Lenovo for nearly $3 billion.  However, what you may not know is that Google also decided to keep some of the parts it liked.  Indeed, Motorola’s Advanced Research and Projects (ATAP) division is still safely under the search giant’s purview, and continues to experiment with seemingly science fiction-esque innovations.

Thus, it may not be too long before we see an edible “authentication vitamin” for our Android devices.  You heard that right: ATAP is looking to turn biometrics on its head with the development of a small, ingestible pill that will allow you to unlock your smartphone, laptop, or whatever else needs unlocking.

The research group is led by former DARPA Director Regine Dugan, who explained the process at a D11 conference last year.

“This pill has a small chip inside of it, with a switch. It also has what amounts to an inside-out potato battery,” she said. “When you swallow it, the acids in your stomach serve as the electrolyte, and they power it up and the switch goes on and off and it creates an 18-bit ECG-like signal in your body. Essentially, your entire body becomes your authentication token.”

Assuming nobody steals your stash of password pills, this makes your personal devices virtually intruder-proof.   Moreover, there’re no more passwords to remember (or expose).   You become uniquely identifiable by all of your devices, which will then respond to you and only you.

 “It means that my arms are like wires, my hands are like alligator clips — when I touch my phone, my computer, my door, my car, I’m authenticated in,” Dugan said. “It’s my first super power. I want that.”

Although the product isn’t nearly market ready, it has reportedly already obtained FDA approval.  Dugan noted that the pills can be safely taken 30 times a day for the rest of your life and communicates nothing but the required authentication information (no word yet if it needs to be on an empty stomach).

Despite its unorthodoxy, the goal of the pill is clearly to make the authentication process more natural and unobtrusive, and that’s certainly a good thing.  Of course, user adoption is the ultimate arbiter of a technology’s worth, so whether or not we’ll be swallowing our passwords in the future is not quite clear just yet. If anything, it’s a step in the right direction, which at the very least opens the door for similar technologies in related fields. 

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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