Sweaty palms safeguarding security


Identity protection and, relatedly, the ability to confidently verify your identity when required, are increasingly important in a digital, connected world. The next-generation security solution may be right at your fingertips…but not in the way you might think.

Emanuela Marasco, an assistant professor at the George Mason University Information Sciences and Technology Department and Center for Secure Information Systems, is working on an innovative way to verify human identity by using sweat samples collected from fingertips. According to Marasco, your sweat makes you unique. “There is evidence that sweat on the skin of the finger can discriminate between people,” she said. The key is to properly detect sweat metabolites—small molecules such as lipids or amino acids that result from metabolic processes in your body.

Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), her research uses hyperspectral imaging (HSI) to peer into sweat and look at three specific metabolites. HSI, which is widely used for agriculture, geosciences, and molecular biology, among other fields, can find and identify various materials invisible to the human eye and other technical viewing equipment.

A person's two hands are placed together, right over left, on a wooden table
Sweat from your fingers—not just your prints—can help verify your identity. 

Marasco said, “Traditional approaches for spoofing are now in danger, because they cannot fool HSI.” According to a paper Marasco recently lead and co-authored, HSI creates a representation of an object by capturing the light bouncing off it, which can relate to its chemical make-up. Among the benefits of sweat analysis for identification is that it is rapid and noninvasive. In addition, according to the paper, it avoids the shortcomings of current systems, which are prone to spoofing (one thing disguised as another) and morphing (the alteration of travel-document photographs, for example), and which do not consistently work across different skin tones. The technology to get around traditional systems has come so far that “fake” fingerprints are so accurate they bypass authentication can be created with something as common as a 3D printer and something as simple as wood glue.

This grant was funded under the NSF EAGER program, which funds research in its early stages. According to NSF, EAGER projects fall under a category of “’high risk, high payoff’ in the sense that it involves radically transformative approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

Marasco said, “I see a wide range of applications. Regardless of this research into sweat, simply looking into the application of HSI to skin could yield numerous findings. There are transformative aspects to this; many studies can be enabled from this project.”

Practical applications are likely still many years away. But if you’re a nervous flier who gets anxious at the site of TSA checkpoints, just wait—those sweaty hands of yours perhaps won’t be a nuisance someday… in fact, they may end up helping you get quickly to your gate.