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July 28, 2014

Cambridge researcher’s answer to lost passwords – an “electronic aura”

System would identify its owner via signals produced within it.

By CBR Staff Writer

A Cambridge University researcher has developed a way of securing passwords through an "electronic body aura", which they hope may become an alternative to traditional passwords.

According to the researcher, an electronic aura is a field ranging within two or three feet from human bodies, which could be produced similar to a Wi-Fi signal, only over a very short stretch.

The new system, called Pico, would use this aura, which can uniquely identify its owner via signals produced within it, to allow the operation only of a particular individual’s electronic devices when they are near to them.

Cambridge University computer laboratory reader in security Frank Stajano told the Guardian: "Passwords are a disaster today – you have to remember dozens of them."

"And they have to be in different cases and include numbers and not be proper dictionary words – and you are not allowed to write them down and on top of that you have to change them every two months.

"We have to find a way to avoid having to remember them all the time."

Capable of remembering thousands of log-in names and passwords, the new Pico system would use the aura to interact automatically with the likes of websites for banks, theatres, and cinemas to operate securely.

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"The pico unlocks only when it finds itself inside an aura of safety around you," Stajano said.

"This aura is created by smaller devices that you would have on your person and which you are not likely to take off: your glasses, your watch, and your shoes.

"We call these devices ‘pico siblings’, and you would have a number of them on your person.

"Only if there are several present would it be possible for your aura to be generated and your car keys – or your house keys or your pico device – to feel comfortable and remain unlocked."

If a device is lost, the system would offer no security threat and would be restored by a backup.

Stajano has also been awarded a £1m grant by the European Union to create a system based on these ideas.

With the work yet to be carried out on its development, the team is also working on aura-generating devices, which would be integrated into individual bodies such as badges, jewellery, belt buckles and wristbands.

"The problem with computer passwords is only going to get worse," Stajano added. "With our pico project we are going for the long-term solution."

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