Byline: JOHN HILL
WILL companies and governments soon be able to identify hackers from the way they use a keyboard? Newcastle University is looking at applications for new technology which can pinpoint a typist's sex, age and culture within 10 keystrokes - a breakthrough that could have multiple uses in law enforcement, corporate fraud prevention and protection of children.
Newcastle University associate professor Roy Maxion conducted his research at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, monitoring and timing students as they typed in an agreed password 400 times.
Prof Maxion's work caught the imagination of former Northumbria Police detective chief inspector Phil Butler, who now works as director of external relations for Newcastle University's Centre for CyberCrime and Computer Security.
Mr Butler said: "He takes 50 people at a time and hooks their fingers up to electronic sensors, then videos, monitors and records their typing patterns, speed and rhythms with a very accurate clock.
"He can now identify anyone using a keyboard within a 95% accuracy within 10 keystrokes. As soon as you type 10 numbers or letters he can work out your sex, your culture, your age and whether you have any hand injuries.
"In general, women's typing tends to flow more and is a little quicker. You'd expect men's typing to be a little more heavy-handed and apparently that's the case.
"We're looking at the application of the research, particularly in relation to internet grooming. If children are talking to each other on Windows Live or MSN Messenger, Microsoft might be able to see if there's an adult on there.
"It can also be used with touch phones such as the iPhone and at ATM machines. Some corporations are thinking it might be useful to identify someone's identity when they're using a cash machine.
"We're going to submit a proposal to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for a bid of probably about pounds 1m to develop the research. We'd like to look at various adaptations of the research for use in law enforcement, forensics and for companies trying to avoid fraud."
The murder of Darlington teenager Ashleigh Hall last year by a serial sex offender she met on social networking site Facebook has stoked concerns about internet grooming, while a report by auditor Pricewaterhouse Coopers has warned cost-saving back office cuts will leave North East businesses open to malware such as Conficker and Clampi.
A KPMG report this year said the North East had the highest levels of serious fraud cases last year outside of London and the South East, with 42 cases involving sums of more than pounds 100,000 out of a UK total of 271.
It was this need to identify and combat the dangers of online activity that led to the formation of the Centre for CyberCrime and Computer Security in July last year, working as an offshoot of the university's School of Computing Science.
Mr Butler said: "Ramraiding was invented in the North East and crime was very physical in decades past. It is now morphing into dependence on technology. "If there's a recession it's easy for companies to say they just won't test the systems, but if you lose that data just once or have a member of staff steal it, you're absolutely stuffed."
PricewaterhouseCoopers reports that 46% of UK public sector respondents to its Global Economic Crime Survey reported an upturn in economic crime in the last year. …