The passport is nothing new, as historians suggest that the first time papers were used to identify an individual and request safe passage through a foreign territory, may have been around the year 450 B.C.
The modern passports that most of us possess today have been around for a far shorter time though, appearing in 1930. Often containing a photograph, signature and list of personally identifying features, they have been considered good enough for almost a hundred years.
Not now though. As technology, crime and terrorism march on, the passports of the future need to be far more secure and packed full of data in order to reduce impersonation and restrict the travel of potential ill-doers.
For many years researchers have looked for ways of improving passports and, nowadays, they generally centre around the use of biometrics.
Photos are deemed old school. Fingerprints, iris scans and heartbeats are the new kid on the block, but none are an infallible means of identifying an individual.
Fingerprints, whilst unique to each of us (except those fortunate enough to have an identical twin), can easily be faked – just ask the Australian high school students what they do with their Gummi Bears.
Iris scanners have had problems too. Many UK airports, for instance, had installed them to speed up immigration but then closed them down in September 2013 following problems with misidentification and difficulties in getting travellers to line their eyes up with the machine in the first place.
Another biometric possibility was mooted last year when a Canadian start-up announced the “Nymi” – a bracelet which could identify heart rhythms. The device, which allows authentication via Bluetooth, verifies the wearers’ identity as it is first slipped onto their wrist and then continues to confirm their identity until it is removed.
As John Hawes pointed out last year, even this form of identity verification comes with its own problems, from ensuring the authentication device is secure to making sure that the bracelet itself is actually connected to its owner’s wrist at the time that the checks are made.
So what other possibilities are there for verifying someone’s identity?
One new and ingenious method put forward recently is the use of body odour. Researchers from the Group of Biometrics, Biosignals and Security (GB2S) at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (UPM), in conjunction with Ilia Sistemas SL, have developed a sensor that can detect volatile elements present in body odour:
The research... unveils that there are recognizable patterns of each person's body odor that remain steady.
Therefore, every person has his/hers own odor and this would allow his/her identification within a group of people at an accurate rate higher than 85%.
Whilst the current accuracy figure still leaves much to be desired it is already on a par with other forms of biometrics and could be managed in a far less obtrusive manner.
The researchers suggest that body odour could in fact be captured quite simply as someone walks past a sensor, making this a technology that could be a good fit for airports and other border security stations.
The team at UPM have also looked into potential drawbacks, examining how results may vary based upon physiological effects which can all alter the scents our bodies secrete. They discovered that:
Body odor can vary considerably by actions such as diseases, diet changes or even the mood swings.
However, the research carried out by the group of the GB2S of the UPM showed that, the analysis of a group of 13 people during 28 sessions have proven that recognizable patterns on each person body odor have an identification at rate error of 15%.
The team says that its work is based upon one of our canine friends, the bloodhound, which has successfully aided the police for over a hundred years with its keen sense of smell, achieving, one would guess, a success rate far in excess of 85%.
Whether “odourmetrics” will prove to be successful in the long-term is up for debate, but I for one already have doubts.
If you imagine a busy airport with sensors near check-in, then how will they be able to identify who is emitting which smell in a long line of eager, jostling passengers?
And how long will it be before someone comes up with a way to mask their own scent or, indeed, mimic the scent of someone else?