Footstep Identification: Can you Walk the Walk?

Last updated: 21 March 2014

In 1991, Phil Collins told us: ‘The only thing about me is the way I walk’.


It seems he was one step ahead of the game.

It’s taken 20 years for the security industry to catch up with Phil and his Genesis bandmates, but an article published this week by the New Scientist claims that a college in Japan has devised a system of identifying people by their footsteps.

The scientists at Shinshu University believe that the technology is as reliable as fingerprint identification, having seen a 99.8% success rate in recent trials. The research has apparently shown that humans have a unique way of distributing weight across their feet each time they take a step.

So will we, a decade or two into the future, be removing our shoes and socks and pacing across a touch-sensitive floor rather than placing our fingertip on a screen or having our irises scanned?

Perhaps not. The New Scientist has always singled out one practical flaw in the system, which is simply that the hygiene implications of footstep identification may put off many users, after all who wants to see or smell a co-workers feet? But there are also more fundamental security issues to consider.

The system doesn’t appear to account for the possibility of variation in the footsteps of the person involved. For example, I am training for a half marathon (not man enough to do the whole thing) and there are days after a long run where I know my walk and step cadence is altered. Also, a short-term injury could cause a person to shift their weight slightly differently as they walk, and even something as minor as a blister could affect which parts of the foot a person may place more weight. And even the inevitable process of aging would make it difficult to factor in changes such as a person’s gait as they grow older.

Three-factor authentication is based on the premise of ‘something you know’, ‘something you have’ and ‘something you are’. Footstep identification obviously falls into the latter of these three categories, but unlike other identification systems which rely on the physical characteristics of the user that are very difficult to change, footsteps and one’s style of walking are easier to change (and therefore probably easier to fake) than fingerprints, irises or palms. After all, how would the system deal with the likes of John Cleese?

This technology seems more likely to be a ‘nice-to-have’ back-up to more reliable security processes than something upon which businesses or border agencies may someday rely. But we like the idea (and the song!).

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