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Computer scientists at the University of London have developed a way for people to sign for goods or services online using a mouse instead of a pen.

Boffins have developed software that is able to uniquely identify the range of movements people make in writing their signature.

The technology was invented by Ross Everitt and Dr Peter McOwan, from the Department of Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London as a supplement to traditional password-based systems in verifying people's identity online.

The system uses a neural network to pick out the distinctive features of the way a person uses a mouse. Given around 20 samples of the way someone signs his or her name with a mouse the system can produce a biometric specific to that individual.

Dr McOwan said: "Our system builds on already familiar user skills, typing and mouse movements, and we find users can reliably reproduce complex mouse-based signatures.

"We are in the process of patenting the technology and hope to speak to companies interested in helping to develop the system or license the technology."

The system essentially provides an extra biometric layer on top of traditional passwords. Its inventors say the approach is superior to alternatives such as two-factor authentication tokens because it would only need additional software on user's machines to operate.

The system can work with both optical and mechanical mice. Early trials with students at Queen Mary show it was 99 per cent accurate in spotting who was using a mouse to sign; so the system needs further development before it's ready for prime time.

From a commercial perspective, it seems more likely that with the introduction of chip and pin users will be more likely asked to verify online purchases using a PIN number than by signing for goods or services. Much will depend of the robustness and accuracy of the Queen Mary system and it'll be interesting to see how the approach develops over time. ®

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