Future authentication superpower: Pop a daily password pill or wear a digital tattoo?

At the recent All Things Digital D11 conference, Motorola chief Dennis Woodside talked about the upcoming ‘Moto X’ phone and Regina Dugan, the former DARPA head, discussed the future of authentication; it could include wearable authentication in the form of digital tattoos, or passwords that could be managed via popping a daily authentication vitamin.

The really fun and freaky D11 parts started when Dugan, DARPA’s former head, started talking about what Motorola's Advanced Technology and Project group is working on regarding unsolved problems such as authentication. Bad passwords are a problem of plague proportions as are equally poor and quirky PIN trends. “Authentication is irritating. In fact it’s so irritating only about half the people do it,” she said, “despite the fact that there’s a lot of information about you on your smartphone, which makes you far more prone to identity theft than if you didn’t otherwise have it there.”

How many times a day do you enter a PIN to check your smartphone? Dugan said, “The average user does it 39 times a day and it takes them 2.3 seconds every time they do it. Power users would do it up to 100 times a day.” She said we need options for doing authentication better and mentioned near-term solutions such as “tokens or fobs with NFC or Bluetooth embedded in them.”

“But you could also think about a means of authentication that you could simply wear on your skin, every day for a week at a time, say an electronic tattoo.”

Digital tattoo for authentication to replace passwords

She showed the D11 audience her tattoo made by MC10. It has an antenna and sensors embedded in it that would work to authenticate Motorola smartphone users as opposed to punching in a PIN number at least 39 times daily. MC10 claims that it “extends human capabilities through virtually invisible and conformal electronics.” Dugan said, Motorola plans to work with MC10 to advance such an authentication tattoo. She added that some teenagers might not want to wear a watch, but “they would wear a tattoo, if only to piss off their parents.” These future authentication tattoos would give people colorful, cool design options.

That’s not the only bit of innovation that the Motorola advanced technology team has been working on. Dugan said she takes a daily vitamin and we could also work password management into our daily habits if we took a daily “vitamin authentication.”

Authentication via daily digital pill to replace passwords

She showed off a pill made by Proteus for medical applications. According to Proteus, the senor in the pill is about the size of a grain of sand. Dugan said because it has been used for medical reasons, the pill is government-approved and “safe” enough that a person could take 30 a day.

She explained, “This pill has a small chip inside of it with a switch. It also has what amounts to an inside-out potato battery. 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.” This means “essentially your entire body becomes your authentication token.”

This digital pill is more than that, as Dugan said it “becomes your first superpower.” For example, after taking a vitamin authentication tablet, “When I touch my phone, my computer, my door, my car, I’m authenticated in.”

Although Motorola has demonstrated the pill working as authentication, it won’t be shipping soon. The Moto X, however, will be shipping “soon.” Motorola’s chief said the Moto X will launch in October and it will be packed with sensors so the smartphone is contextually aware. That certainly snagged my attention as last week we looked at contextually aware malware that could be triggered by music playing as far as 55 feet away.

Woodside said Motorola has been "really good at managing power on the device" as well as managing “ultra-low power sensors” like the gyroscope and accelerometer. By “keeping those on all the time,” the “device knows different use-states.” He gave examples of how the Moto X phone will know when it’s in your pocket, or when it’s taken out of your pocket; it will “know” when you want to use the camera, and “fire up the camera when you take it out of your pocket.” He said, “It anticipates my needs.”

Moto X will be more contextually aware than smartphones are now. Woodside said, “More importantly, imagine when you're in the car.” The device will not only know whether it's on or off, it will know if it’s “traveling at 60 miles an hour; it's going to act differently. You can interact with it safely.” He proudly added that Moto X will be made in the USA, more specifically, in Texas. We’ll be hearing more soon about Motorola’s flagship smartphone . . . the first that is “not a Google phone.”

Here's the D11 video of these two Motorola power-people.

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