ISU professor’s research finds security between keystrokes

Anna Bellegante

With constantly changing technology, new issues have popped up in the past few years dealing with identity theft and fraud. ISU researchers are working on finding new ways to deal with securing computers to allay fears of identity theft.

Morris Chang, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, wants to find out how to solve this problem that occurs to people every day.

Chang and his research team, which includes Chris Chong-Nuen Chu and Ahmed Kamal, associate professors of electrical and computer engineering, and Stephen Gilbert, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, were granted $500,000 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a computer system exploring new biometrics.

Biometrics uses a measurable device to identify users, such as a fingerprint or voice recognition. Chang says the way people type can reveal a “cognitive fingerprint.” In other words, the way a person thinks is so unique that their mind could identify them as accurately as their fingerprint.

Chang wants to extract that cognitive fingerprint by monitoring and analyzing people’s typing behavior and keyboard strokes. He plans to focus specifically on the pauses people take while typing. Where people pause as they are typing a word or sentence could be used in biometrics, Chang believes, because in that pause, information is being processed in the brain, and the length and number of pauses vary from person to person.

With this information, Chang hopes to develop a “security system that doesn’t rely on passwords … and is capable to continuously ensure the authorized user is the only one for any particular computer.”

Chang discovered that pauses could be used as identifiers while he was measuring the mechanical factors of people’s typing behavior, such as typing speed and typos. By observing people pause to think about what they were typing, Chang developed a hypothesis that an active or continuous authentication system could be invented to ensure computer security. Chang says he hopes this research leads to the next technological breakthrough.

The U.S. Department of Defense is hoping so too.

The $500,000 grant will be used to develop the software for this system and to engage in larger scale experiments. Phase One of the project will involve 3,000 students, faculty and staff from the ISU community to verify Chang’s hypothesis. The project officially began June 1, and it will take a year to complete Phase One.

Chang hopes to continue receiving government support for Phases Two and Three of the project, where the theory would be implemented into a computer system and then investigated to fix any holes in the system. The entire research project could take three years.

Chang said this government-funded project is a great opportunity for Iowa State to enrich and expand education and research practices. He hopes the technology will mature and eventually be widely used to protect business transactions, email and even social network accounts.

“A password can be stolen,” Chang said, “but it is very hard to steal a fingerprint.”