'Smart' Keyboard Can ID You by How You Type

Zhong Lin Wang (left) and Jun Chen (right) of Georgia Tech show their new self-powered keyboard, which can lock out unauthorized users. Jun Chen/Georgia Tech

As data breaches and identity theft become more and more common, the market is growing for biometric technologies—like fingerprint or iris scans—to keep others out of private e-spaces. They're still expensive, though, and some balk at the prospect of having deeply personal identifiers taken and maintained by a third party.

Researchers from Georgia Tech say they have come up with a low-cost device that gets around some of these issues: a smart keyboard. This contraption precisely measures the cadence with which one types and the pressure fingers apply to each key. These patterns are unique to each individual, says Jun Chen, a doctoral engineering student. By measuring how somebody types a password, he says, the keyboard can determine people's identities, and thus, by extension, whether they should be granted access to the computer it's connected to—regardless of whether someone gets the password right.

It also doesn't require a new type of technology that people aren't already familiar with. "Everybody uses a keyboard...and everybody types differently," Chen says.

The device also harnesses energy when fingers touch keys—energy that could be used to, for example, power a wireless emitter and eliminate the need for a cord. The keys are made of layers of polymers that harbor a slightly negative charge, whereas skin is partially positively charged, Chen explains. When fingers come into contact with the keys and press down, and lift again, they transfer electrons to the keys. This completes an electric circuit with the keyboard, producing a small current.

The smart keyboard powers itself by generating electricity when a person’s fingertips make contact with its multi-layer plastic materials. The keyboard could offer a stronger layer of security by analyzing things like the force of a user’s typing and the time between key presses. Rob Felt/Georgia Tech

This phenomenon, called "contact electrification," is the same process that creates static electricity, Chen says: "It's like when you run your hand across a wool blanket and see 'sparks' in the darkness." Only to a lesser and invisible degree.

In a study describing the technology published in the journal ACS Nano, the researchers had 100 volunteers type the word touch four times using the keyboard. Data gleaned from the device could be used to identify individual participants based on how they typed, with very low error rates, Chen says. So far, there is just one working prototype of the intelligent keyboard. But, Chen says, it should be pretty straightforward to commercialize and is mostly made of inexpensive, plastic-like parts. The team hopes it could make it to market in about five years.