Health · June 23, 2022

Could your breath allow your phone to identify you?

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Facial recognition and fingerprint verification are becoming common security features on our phones, and now your breath could be a potential biometric security option, according to a report published in chemical communication.

Researchers at Kyushu University’s Institute for Materials Chemistry and Engineering, working with the University of Tokyo, have developed an olfactory (smell) sensor that can identify a person by analyzing their breath, the report said.

“Recently, human smell has emerged as a new class of biometric authentication that essentially uses your unique chemical makeup to validate who you are,” study lead author Chaiyanut Jirayupat said in a press release.

Bangkok, Thailand - December 12, 2015: Apple iPhone5s held in a hand showing its screen for entering the passcode.  Researchers at Kyushu University's Institute for Materials Chemistry and Engineering, working with the University of Tokyo, developed an olfactory (smell) sensor that can identify a person by analyzing their breath, the report said.

Bangkok, Thailand – December 12, 2015: Apple iPhone5s held in a hand showing its screen for entering the passcode. Researchers at Kyushu University’s Institute for Materials Chemistry and Engineering, working with the University of Tokyo, developed an olfactory (smell) sensor that can identify a person by analyzing their breath, the report said.
(iStock)

The “artificial nose” contained a 16-channel sensor that verified up to 20 people with an average accuracy rate of 97.8%, the press release said.

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Researchers noted that current technology relies on biometric authentication, typically through voice, fingerprints, palm prints, and faces. In some cases, ear acoustics and finger veins are used to protect the safety of a person’s assets, the study authors said in the report.

“These techniques rely on the physical uniqueness of each individual, but they are not foolproof. Physical characteristics can be duplicated or even compromised by injury,” Jirayupat said in the press release, and is one of the reasons the team explored other biometric authentication measures.

Researchers noted that current technology relies on biometric authentication, typically through voice, fingerprints, palm prints, and faces.  In some cases, ear acoustics and finger veins are used to protect the safety of a person's assets, the study authors said in the report.

Researchers noted that current technology relies on biometric authentication, typically through voice, fingerprints, palm prints, and faces. In some cases, ear acoustics and finger veins are used to protect the safety of a person’s assets, the study authors said in the report.
(iStock)

Investigators looked at gas compounds produced by the person’s skin, but said it was limited because the skin doesn’t produce enough compounds for machines to detect. This prompted the team to investigate whether making a person breathe could be a viable option.

“The concentration of volatile compounds from the skin can be as high as several parts per billion or trillions, while compounds exhaled from the breath can be as high as parts per million,” Jirayupat explained in the press release. The study author also said in the report that human breath is currently being used to determine if a person has certain diseases, including diabetes, cancer and even COVID-19.

Researchers developed an odor sensor that could identify a specific set of compounds. They analyzed the participants’ breath and decided that 28 compounds in human breath could be used for biometric authentication. The sensor data was run through a machine learning system that analyzed the composition of each subject’s breath and developed a profile to identify an individual, the press release said.

Brett Case, PhD sterilizes his suit with disinfectant spray before working with the virus that causes COVID-19.  Researchers developed an odor sensor that could identify a specific set of compounds.  They analyzed the participants' breath and decided that 28 compounds in human breath could be used for biometric authentication.

Brett Case, PhD sterilizes his suit with disinfectant spray before working with the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers developed an odor sensor that could identify a specific set of compounds. They analyzed the participants’ breath and decided that 28 compounds in human breath could be used for biometric authentication.
(Matt Miller / Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis)

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The team tested breath samples from six people and then a larger sample of 20 subjects.

The results consistently showed that they were able to identify the person in both sample groups with an average accuracy of just under 98%.

“This was a diverse group of people of different ages, genders and nationalities. It’s encouraging to see such high accuracy across the board,” said Takeshi Yanagida, who led the study, in the release.

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In this study, subjects fasted for six hours prior to the test. Yanagida said in the press release, “The next step will be to refine this technique to work independently of diet. Fortunately, our current study showed that adding more sensors and collecting more data could overcome this obstacle.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for this option on the next smartphone, though — the study authors said more work is needed before it arrives on your device.