Getting people to secure their smartphones is a tough job. They contain our entire digital lives, everything from confidential emails to sensitive bank information. That presents a bit of a problem if we lose our phones and they fall into the wrong hands. Protecting against this can be as simple as setting a basic lock code on the smartphone’s lockscreen, but studies show that a lot of smartphone users don’t bother. I’ll admit that I’m often one of those people — it’s just easier to live with the risk than deal with tapping numbers or swiping fingers across my screen every time I pick up my phone to check Twitter or do something else (which can easily be over a hundred times a day).
The major smartphone makers have been working on different security methods for years to encourage more people to safeguard their phones. These methods range from the inconvenient and insecure, like Google’s Face Unlock system in Android, to the quick and painless, like Apple’s Touch ID on the iPhone 5S. Motorola debuted a number of new lockscreen options with the Moto X last year, including trusted Bluetooth devices and the Skip accessory.
Google’s Advanced Technologies and Products group, the same team that develops moonshot ideas like modular cellphones and devices that can map a room in 3D space, has also been working on this problem. Last year, Regina Dugan, head of the group that came over to Google from Motorola, showed off concepts that lets you use a sticker on your skin to unlock your phone or swallow a pill that can authenticate you. The sticker is a temporary tattoo with an NFC chip inside, not unlike the cartoonish temporary tattoos you can purchase from vending machines in department stores across the country.
It’s taken over a year, but as of a few weeks ago, you can actually purchase temporary tattoos to unlock your phone. Motorola partnered with a company called VivaLnk to make and sell these "Digital Tattoos." For $9.99, you can get a pack of 10 Digital Tattoos, each expected to last about five days. Since I happen to own a Moto X (and that’s the only device they work with), I decided to give them a shot — I’m not brave enough to embed a magnet or NFC chip under my skin like some of my colleagues, but I’m willing to try to get a taste of the biohacker movement, albeit in a limited and temporary way.
Sweat and humidity take their toll on the tattoo's lifespan
The round, nickel-sized stickers have a shimmery, copper color with a corny spiral design. My wife was quick to remark at how stupid it looked, but my two-year-old daughter was fairly fascinated with it, likely due to the unbridled curiosity that comes with being a toddler. I’ll admit it’s pretty ugly, but it’s not bad enough that I couldn’t live with it for a week. The adhesive part is only on the outer edge of the sticker but it’s thin and flexible, and it didn’t bother me to wear it. It’s a good thing that 10 tattoos came in a pack; thanks to the humid July weather and the fact that I shower daily, I burned through three of them within a week.
The tattoo is best placed where you can easily touch it with your phone, so I put it on the underside of my right wrist. (Being a lefty, I usually hold my phone in my left hand.) The idea is to tap the phone on the tattoo to unlock it instead of using a traditional pattern or PIN lock code. The Moto X sees the tattoo as if it were a Skip device, and once you’ve set up the lockscreen to unlock via NFC, the phone’s security screen can be bypassed with just a tap.
It’s a neat parlor trick and amusing to show off to others, but practical use is limited. The phone will only recognize the tattoo when the screen is on, so you either have to press the power button before tapping or rely on the Moto X’s motion sensing to wake the screen up when you pick up the phone. The whole process actually takes longer than just typing my PIN or drawing my swipe code. It also requires two limbs to accomplish, whereas the traditional methods can be easily done with one hand. That’s not to mention that you need to set the whole thing up again every time you replace the tattoo on your body. Unless I specifically thought about using the tattoo to unlock my phone, I quickly forgot about it and would use the other, more traditional methods most of the time. Old habits are hard to break, after all.
Using the tattoo is no more convenient than traditional unlock methods
The Moto X hasn’t been a great seller, but its software concepts and ideas have had a significant impact in the Android world. The next version of Android borrows the Moto X’s trusted Bluetooth feature. And there are countless apps in the Google Play Store which try to mimic the Moto X’s Active Notifications. But while the Moto X and the ideas behind it have inspired the rest of the phone world, these tattoos probably won’t. It’s an idea that sounds great on paper and perhaps in the labs of advanced research groups, but won’t have much of an impact in the real world. It’s just not that much better (or better at all, really) than using other methods to unlock your phone, at least not in its current incarnation.
For now, I’ll be going back to using the Moto X’s trusted Bluetooth devices feature and a traditional pattern lock to secure my phone, assuming I set any protection at all. Biohacking is still very much an underground activity, and while this tattoo makes it more palatable for the mainstream, it’s not something that most people are likely to care about. It’s too limited, too ugly, and less convenient than conventional methods. The future may bring a world of cyborgs with technology embedded in their bodies, but temporary NFC tattoos probably won’t be a part of it.