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ZEBRA taps keyboard dynamics to identify users

ZEBRA taps keyboard dynamics to identify users

Unattended computers are a recognized security risk. So are users who don’t follow security protocols. In some settings, that combination can be life threatening.

In busy hospitals, for example, doctors, nurses and health care staff use the same computers to update patient information. Studies have found that doctors frequently enter health data into the wrong patient’s record because they thought the open record on the computer at hand belonged to the patient they were treating – when in fact the previous user had not closed the record he was working on and logged out.

Even in situations where workers have their own computers, users get distracted and forget to log out or find workarounds to avoid frequent logins.

IT managers have tried, with varying degrees of success, a variety of deauthentication techniques.  Automatic logouts after a period of inactivity aren’t sensitive to context, and proximity sensors don’t work well in crowded environments.

Researchers have been working on a way to continuously authenticate users while they are using a computer terminal and automatically log them out when they leave. That’s the idea – though not yet the technology – behind ZEBRA, or Zero Effort Bilateral Recurring Authentication.

The Dartmouth College Trustworthy Health and Wellness (THaW) program, funded by the National Science Foundation, developed ZEBRA as a way to protect medical records in clinical settings by preventing accidental (or intentional) misuse of a user’s account on a vacant terminal.  

With the ZEBRA system, developed by Shrirang Mare, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science, a user wears a bracelet with a built-in radio, gyroscope and accelerometer.  When the worker is using a computer equipped with ZEBRA software, the computer records the wrist movements transmitted from the bracelet. 

ZEBRA compares the bracelet movements with keyboard and mouse input and, if they correlate, the user is authorized. “You can authenticate with the base once at the beginning of the day and then when you take off the bracelet, the bracelet can detect that it has been taken off,” Mare said.

If a ZEBRA user steps away and someone else starts using the computer, the two sequences of interactions will not match, and the terminal will deauthenticate the ZEBRA user, forcing the second user to login.

In testing, ZEBRA performed with 85 percent accuracy when given 11 seconds to record activity. The accuracy rate increased to 90 percent when the system was given 50 seconds to record activity.  According to Mare, the errors are primarily due to periods of minimal wrist movement by the user. 

The team is continuing to work on lowering the error rates. “Thirty seconds is a long time for an attacker to do some damage,” Mare noted. 

It’s also possible that the bracelet itself could be better adapted for the purpose.  Currently, ZEBRA uses a commercially available Shimmer bracelet, a wearable sensor platform that has been used in applications from assistive robotics and environmental monitoring to sports performance management.

And Mare said that the most recent version of the Shimmer bracelet, Shimmer3, already promises improvement over the previous version.  “Shimmer3 has a new low-noise accelerometer sensor compared to Shimmer2R, and we are exploring that,” Mare said.  “We are also exploring new ways to improve accuracy through changes in software.” 

Posted by Patrick Marshall on Oct 07, 2014 at 11:41 AM


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Reader Comments

Tue, Oct 21, 2014 PowerUser

I have a program that has to run long computational algorythms, right now I can dump hours of work when the pressent 10 minute time out happens, often we have had to run a cycle that lasted hours on a global scale data set!! What then??? If they are so worried about security just issue handcuffs and chain me to my computer.

Wed, Oct 8, 2014 RayW

I may be over reacting to something that probably will have very limited use but:

1. Wearing a bracelet is a safety hazard in parts of my work place (and a serious safety write-up/potential work-stop). How will this work for that environment?

2. In my office space if I am at the computer I usually have a document up and scanning though another document off to the side to compare the softcopy information to an old non-softcopy documents. The current mandatory 5 minute time out is a pain since invariably the screen blanks just as I find the line I want and I have to move the mouse and refind the line. This 30 second planned inactivity timeout means wasted motions just to avoid the much less than 1% chance of someone invading the building and bypassing all the security doors (for some reason some security folks think is a 99% chance).

3. I have a limited work area (love the Gov regulations on work area sizes) and have to walk over to a table 10 feet away if I have to spread things out for a better overview, now I get logged off as soon as I walk away and have to log back in up to 20-30 times an hour? I guess security is paramount over work, but if no work gets done then what is the point of security?

I can see certain jobs/environments where this would be useful, but all too many others will mean more jittering to avoid logouts.

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