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A Canadian security firm that developed a device which uses the rhythm of a person's heartbeat as a biometric identifier has said that the technology offers a secure alternative to conventional biometrics.

The Nymi wristband bracelet, manufactured by Bionym and due to become available next year, bundles a sensor that monitors a person's heart rhythm. The technology detects when the bracelet is in close proximity to a paired device such as a computer or tablet before unlocking the device.

As previously reported, the technology is touted as an alternative to passwords, PINs, keys and cards. The bracelet communicates with connected devices using Bluetooth short-range radio technology.

Bionym reckons the technology can be adopted to do anything from opening a car boot to making a payment in a coffee shop, as well as offering an additional form of authentication, particularly when used in conjunction with mobile technology. Developers reckon the heartbeat tech is just as reliable as conventional biometrics such as fingerprint scanners and facial recognition technology.

The Nymi is due to debut in early 2014 at a cost of around $79 apiece. The band can be combined with a person's heart rhythm and a dedicated app, available for iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac OSX, to offer "three factor" authentication. A built-in accelerometer and gyroscope will allow for gesture controls with the Bionym, as explained in the promotional video above.

The technology apparently copes with changes in heart rate that are associated with exercise, excitement or stress but El Reg's security desk would still like to see more testing in this area.

Commentary on the security implications of a heartbeat-based biometric, as well as the future of other alternatives to passwords including gesture-based biometrics and swallow-able dongles, can be found in a blog post on the Sophos Naked Security blogpost by John Hawes.

"Just how resilient the authentication will be to stress, fitness, ageing and so on may well be a major factor in the success of the idea," Hawes writes.

"There are also security concerns of course. The connection to the authenticating devices will have to be very secure, and the bracelet will have to ensure it remains connected to a live wrist; as with biostamps, if it can simply be slid (or hacked) off and still work, it'll be no good."

"Also like biostamps, there's a potential issue with proximity; if it's simply broadcasting a 'yes' to any request for ID, it would seem trivial to sneak up behind someone and steal their login," he added.

Bionym’s chief executive, Karl Martin, told El Reg that the technology is secure by design, and withstands capture and replay attacks.

"We have a hardware-based secure element that signs the outgoing data as part of a challenge-response handshake protocol," he explained. This makes it robust against replay attacks. We also have persistent sensing that ensures that as soon as the wristband is removed from the body, it will be deactivated."

Martin added that initial applications would include device unlocking: "The most immediate applications are those that are already Bluetooth enabled: device unlock for smartphones, tablets, and computers, and identity authentication for applications on those platforms. However, more devices and systems are becoming 'hackable', including vehicles, making integration very feasible.

Integrating payment facilities remains a work in progress for Bionym, however.

"The main radio is Bluetooth 4.0. We may have NFC, but have not committed to it,” Martin explained. "There are no worldwide standards for payments, but we're working on the partnerships to enable payments with the Nymi." ®

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