Architecture and Hardware

New Keys to Data Security

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Zhong Lin Wang (left) and graduate research assistant Jun Chen.
Georgia Institute of Technology professor Zhong Lin Wang (left) and graduate research assistant Jun Chen display their new self-powered keyboard, which could provide a stronger layer of security for computer users.

You used to have to hit typewriter keys somewhat forcefully to get them to deliver ink onto a page. Thanks to the lighter touch used on most of today’s computer boards, "May the force be with you" is no longer needed for entering data.

Yet researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) School of Materials Science and Engineering recognized that far more than simple moderation of keyboard finger pressure is necessary to protect data. That’s why Georgia Tech (along with teams in Beijing and California) is investigating a more complex hardware option: the intelligent keyboard. 

Zhong Lin Wang, a Georgia Tech Regents professor and the leader of the study, says intelligent keyboards have "the potential to be a new means for identifying users."

The Wang team’s research (still at a very preliminary stage) involves covering keyboards with multi-layer transparent film materials—a "smart skin"—that can create a complex electrical signal. The keyboard records and analyzes each user’s specific touch during typing, with the aim of almost-instant identification of who is hitting the keys.

"Different people have different typing patterns correlated to a lot of personalized information, including finger size, typing force, and individual bioelectricity," says Jun Chen, another member of the Georgia Tech team. Once an individual’s typing profile is recorded, says Chen, the system would be able to distinguish that person from anyone else using the keyboard.

An initial test of 104 subjects was encouraging, says the team. Each subject typed the word "touch" four different times. With each typing, the keyboard recorded more about each individual’s electrical and typing patterns, ultimately noting strong differentiations.

"Traditional keyboards are limited to recording the time you press down a key and the time you lift up," says Jonathan Katz, director of the Maryland Cyber-Security Center and professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. "Doing something special to record the actual pressure and force on a key," he says, is what makes the Georgia Tech team’s keyboard interesting.

"Existing software can identify users based on nuances in their individual typing," says David Talenfeld, portfolio analyst at BioAccel, a venture capital company in Arizona. He acknowledges hardware-based security imposes additional cost, but notes, "It enables more nuanced security, and being powered by typing could make it wireless."

Wang adds, "With this system, a compromised password would not allow a cyber-criminal onto the computer."

Katz suggests had Sony utilized hardware protection like Georgia Tech’s keyboard before its confidential data was hacked and released last November, the results might have been different. "If differences in typing patterns had allowed Sony to identify an unauthorized intruder trying to impersonate a legitimate user, Sony might have been able to lock the intruder out before they could finish carrying out their attack."

The U.S. government has critical interest in cybersecurity, including trials such as this. "We are strong supporters of multi-factor authentication for both physical and remote access to computers," says Ari Baranoff, assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service Criminal Investigative Division in the Department of Homeland Security.

Possible environmental benefits are another aspect of Georgia Tech’s research. "When you’re typing, there’s a motion, a type of mechanical energy. We convert it into electricity, so it’s not wasted. Since every day we’re typing a lot, you can recycle your own typing energy," creating in effect a self-powered keyboard, says Chen.

"We’re working to integrate the smart skin and install it into any type of commercial keyboard," says Chen. Wang emphasizes the smart skin is based on inexpensive materials widely used in the electronics industry, so smart skin-equipped keyboards should be competitive with existing keyboards in terms of both cost and durability.

Ultimately, keyboard options like this hold promise for enhanced security, greater environmental consciousness, and general usability.

Despite these benefits, Talenfeld believes the keyboard will disappear altogether in the not-too-distant future. "We’ll see the development of a kind of computer-in-a-scroll…a thin, touch-sensitive display you can un-scroll and type on."

Wendy J. Meyeroff is a health and technology writer based in the Baltimore area of Maryland.

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