Prototype system uses body for secure bio-communication

A new system that uses the body itself as a conduit for signal transmission could provide much greater security for biomedical devices such as pacemakers and insulin pumps.

Current wireless transmission around the body generally relies on Bluetooth, which can be detected up to five metres away. This provides an opportunity for these signals to be intercepted or manipulated, potentially putting a user’s pacemaker in the hands of a hacker. Though an instance of this has yet to be recorded, the proliferation of wearable tech and implanted devices makes it increasingly likely in the future.

Developed by engineers at Purdue University, the new system uses a technique called Electro-Quasistatic Human Body Communication (EQS-HBC) to create a ‘covert body area network’. Using very low-frequency signals, information can be sent via the body itself between devices – such as a smartwatch and an insulin pump – with the signal never travelling beyond 15cm of the body. The work is described in the journal Scientific Reports.

(Credit: Purdue University image/Debayan Das)

“We’re connecting more and more devices to the human body network, from smartwatches and fitness trackers to head-mounted virtual reality displays,” said study author Shreyas Sen, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue.

“The challenge has not only been keeping this communication within the body so that no one can intercept it, but also getting higher bandwidth and less battery consumption.”

(Credit: Purdue University image/Erin Easterling)

As well as being orders of magnitude more secure than Bluetooth due to the signals travelling so close to the skin, the system also consumes 100 times less energy, according to the Purdue team. Nonetheless, the prototype was able to communicate signals from head to toe using a smartwatch.

Backed by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation, the research will now focus on incorporating its electro-quasistatic coupling device into a minute integrated circuit. As well as controlling biomedical devices securely, it is claimed the technology could also facilitate bioelectronic medicine where electrical signals are used in place of drugs.