Security in a heartbeat

Would you pay $100 and tether yourself to an electronic device every day, just so you won’t have to remember the passwords and PINs to your various debit and credit cards, laptop, tablet, smartphone and all their apps?

Would you pay $100 and tether yourself to an electronic device every day, just so you won’t have to remember the passwords and PINs to your various debit and credit cards, laptop, tablet, smartphone and all their apps?

Or to make growing your credit card debt more secure (and probably more convenient than is good for you)?

At the rate we have accumulated these things in our lives, $100 seems almost worth it. If you (like me) have avoided upgrading your computer’s operating system or declined subscribing to what might be a useful service, or couldn’t reboot after a crash, all because you couldn’t recall your password, being able to do all these things with a wave of your hand seems … almost useful.

Especially if all these transactions could be as secure as your individual heartbeat. Nobody can steal, copy or forge that.

Call it the result of paying for research at universities. A group of tech-heads at the University of Toronto was thinking about biometrics as a means of instant, secure identification. Rather than finding another way to read a fingerprint or retina scan, they looked into the possibility that the electronic signature of every person’s heartbeat is likewise unique.

Anything that can be read electronically — like an ECG — can be digitized and stored. So they rounded up 1,000 or so volunteers at the U of T, gave them an ECG and found that no two of them matched exactly.

What do you do with information like that? You spin off a company and look for seed money.

The new company, called Bionym, got a total of $14 million from the federal government, through Export Development Canada, and investment partners like Ignition Partners, Relay Ventures — and MasterCard.

They used the money to design and build a slim bracelet, called a Nymi, that you activate with a reading of your heartbeat. That little bracelet would then be able to talk to your computer, laptop, smartphone — and your credit card — and act in your name.

It could work with any other applications a person could dream up that requires personal ID. Some articles have already suggested hotel room key access, or even ID at restaurants, which would instantly know your personal preferences and profile, just as you walk through the door. Italian sausage pizza, no pepperoni, with extra onions, coming right up.

I’m betting MasterCard got the link with the Royal Bank of Canada, which will be testing the devices in the near future. If things go as hoped, Royal Bank account holders would be able to purchase a Royal Bank Nymi, and use it as a debit or credit card at bank machines and whatever stores that are able to accept it.

After that, expect every bank to roll out their own versions.

We are so used to instant rollouts of the latest gizmo, but just be aware that making a warehouse full of bracelets isn’t all this involves. Think of all the places that will have to adopt the technology to accept these things, in numbers to make having a Nymi device worthwhile. That will take some time.

In the meantime, perhaps we should sit back and think about whether we really need this.

Even considering my own difficulties with passwords and PINs, I’m not sure this gizmo is worth 100 bucks, plus the effort of having to learn how to use it, connect it to everything in the known universe, and keep it running.

Isn’t it enough that I can just tap my bank card on the machine in the store, and the money in my bank account is transferred to the retailer?

I’m already shamed sometimes because I so seldom carry cash. It’s like I have to make an extra trip to pick up a poppy for Remembrance Day, or remember to grab a few coins at home before I go shopping, to have something for the charity box at the grocery store, which used to be so usual as to be thoughtless.

And I certainly don’t need anything that makes buying more stuff more convenient. Or another reminder that I’m “not the target demographic.”

I’ve been wrong about these things before. Years ago, I was happily convinced I would be one of those people who would go through life without having a personal computer. Or a digital camera. Or writing a blog. Or, until this year, without owning a cellphone.

I still vow never to Face my Book or tweet my twitter. Lines need to be drawn.

I also maintain the hope to complete my time in this world without every store that I walk past knowing who I am and my complete shopping history. Maybe The Machine has already taken over but I prefer to be the least active cog within it.

For now, my heart is my own. That and the hundred bucks. And may the junk in your life be limited by the number of passwords and PINS you can remember.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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