Paedo-geddon: the secretarial edition

From The Telegraph website, and dated 26th March (i.e. it’s not an April fool, unless the date-stamp on the article is part of the spoof):

Typing technique ‘could catch paedophiles’

Researchers believe technology could be used to determine a computer typist’s age, sex and culture within 10 keystrokes by monitoring their speed and rhythm.


Former Northumbria Police detective chief inspector Phil Butler believes the technology could be useful in tracking down online fraudsters and paedophiles.

Mr Butler, who heads Newcastle University’s Cybercrime and Computer Security department, said: […] ”If children are talking to each other on Windows Live or MSN Messenger, we are looking at ways of providing the chat room moderators with the technology to be able to see whether an adult is on there by the way they type.”

Mr Butler said the technology could also be used to prevent convicted sex offenders committing further crimes.


”With this technology the courts could force the offender to provide an example of their typing as a way of ensuring they don’t use a computer.”

Oh, god, where to start?

Ok, let’s start here: the research has apparently shown that analysis of a person’s manner of typing can demonstrate their age, sex and culture.  From this, Chief Inspector Plod Butler has embarked on an entirely logic-free flight of fancy, arriving in a happy world of fairy wings and puppy-dog tails where the ability to identify someone’s age, sex and culture means that you can identify them as an individual.  That’s what the last quotation from him above implies, anyway.

Now, as it happens, I’m not quite so certain as Mr Butler that a paedophile could be forced to provide a sample of their typing against their will (you can strap someone down and stick a needle in their arm to get a DNA sample even if they’re fighting you tooth and nail, but how in the hell do you force someone to type?  Grabbing hold of their fingers and forcing them onto the keys will generate an entirely false result in terms of speed and rhythm, after all).  Still, let’s assume for now that you can force a ‘natural’ typing sample out of a paedophile.  The researchers are still only claiming that this can be used to reveal the typist’s age, sex and cultural background.  I guess this would be the equivalent of a witness description – “the assailant was a white male, and is estimated to be in his mid to late 40s” – but what ex-policeman Butler is talking about is the equivalent of a set of fingerprints – something unique to the individual.  And he’s envisaging a world where this tell-tale digital fingerprint is so unique, so individual, so capable of absolute certainty in analysis and interpretation that it can be used to establish in a court of law that a convicted paedophile has violated the terms of their parole by using a computer.

This is a complete fantasy unsupported by the research mentioned in the article, but even if it wasn’t, any attempt at catching a particular individual by the way they type is doomed to fail.  Let me provide, as a public service, a summary of just a few of the very many ways an individual could disguise their typing.  They could, for example, revert to using a single finger on each hand.  Or they could hold their right hand in their lap, and type only with their left (vice versa if they were left-handed).  Or they could tape their index and middle fingers together.  Or they could make it a policy to type only by stabbing their pinkie at the keyboard.  Or they could write (or download) a tiny, simple program that would intercept keystrokes as they are made, then delay the appearance of the text within an instant messaging client or other piece of software so that it seems to be being typed to a completely different pattern.  Or they could forget about typing altogether, and use dictation software instead.  And you’ll have realised already, of course, that these same techniques will be just as useful in masking the telltale signs of a person’s age, sex, or cultural background as they would be in disguising individual identity.

So it would seem that circumventing this shiny new system would be exceptionally easy, but I find myself wondering about how reliable it is in the first place.  I wonder, for example, how the researchers have managed to satisfy themselves that their method of analysis is capable of identifying and excluding the effect of variables besides age, sex and cultural background.  So, for example, can they be certain their analysis won’t be thrown off the scent by a person who’s typing is being affected by the fact they have their arm in a sling?  What about a learning-disabled person who’s ‘mental age’ is different to their chronological age – is the system capable of correcting for that, too?  Can it tell the difference between a person typing slowly and hesitantly because she’s 5 years old and a Russian adult typing slowly and hesitantly in English because he’s having to cope with a second language, an unfamiliar alphabet and an alien keyboard layout?  If it can do these things, then how can it?  It’s a pretty neat trick for an algorithm, isn’t it, not only recognising that there’s a delay of a particular length between typing the letter ‘a’ and the letter ‘p’, but also divining why there’s a delay?

But even if the method of analysis is 100% accurate 100% of the time, I still find myself puzzling over how this could ever be implemented in practical terms.  I wonder, for example, how the effects of network latency are going to be dealt with, if this technology is to be used online.  Differences in rhythm can only be measured, presumably, as tiny variations in the delay between keystrokes, and these variations in delay are going to be very small – in the order of hundredths of seconds, I would imagine or, at best, tenths of a second.  And isn’t there a strong likelihood, thanks to packet-switching and the effect of sudden peaks of demand – the whole architecture of the internet, in fact – that these kinds of tiny delays will be materially affected in the process of transmitting the data from the user’s computer to the server?  I’d be fascinated to know how they intend to adjust for that.

Oh, and just one last thing (he said, channelling Columbo): when you’re using MSN Messenger, or a chat room, don’t you usually type your message, and then, when you’re ready, hit enter to send it?  I’ll freely admit I haven’t used these kinds of things for a good couple of years, but last time I did, that was the way it worked.  And if that’s right – well, wouldn’t that mean that the text is uploaded to the server in a single lump?  And wouldn’t that mean that any analysis program loaded on the server would have absolutely no way of measuring the speed and rhythm of someone’s typing?  And wouldn’t that single, solitary fact mean that this whole thing is just a great big pile of horse…nonsense?

I’ve checked the date on the article again, but I still can’t shake the feeling I’ve been suckered by an April fool here.  I mean surely no-one would ever think that this could work, would they?  They’d see through it in about 5 seconds flat.  Wouldn’t they?  I mean, ok, maybe a journalist could be busy enough (or ignorant enough) to write so stupid a story.  But, surely, the staff in Newcastle University’s Centre for Cybercrime and Computer Security – you know, clever people, experts in computing – wouldn’t believe something so obviously impractical, something so easy to circumvent, could work, would they?  I mean, an entire university department’s complement of professors and PhDs couldn’t be that dumb, surely?  I mean, surely.  Surely?

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8 Responses to Paedo-geddon: the secretarial edition

  1. The Houseshold Goddess says:

    This is, as you so rightly pointed out, bollocks. Although, I’d love to see what you can divine from the way this reply has been typed. :-)

  2. Kapitano says:

    The ‘technique’ has been reported in several places over several days, so it’s not april foolishness. Just ordinary foolishness.

    Are the CID, FBI or Special Branch stupid enough (or desperate enough) to believe this stuff? I rather think it’s unwise to underestimate the stupidity of the army and police – just look at the CIA’s experiments with psychics, the Galipoli invasion, and the hundreds of incompetently forged confessions that have come to light over the years. But I don’t think they’re that dumb – and I don’t imagine they believe it.

    And I don’t imagine most newspaper readers believe it either. But, a constant trickle of bullshit stories about how it’s impossible to get away with a crime can create the general impression that the police really do have godlike powers of detection.

    A thousand bad arguments don’t add up to one good argument, but psychologically, they can seem to. I suspect that’s what’s going on.

  3. Alex says:

    It’s a little bewildering that these guys have been told to devise fancy new high-tech methods of catching paedophiles, terrorists and the like, and the best they can come up with is to deputise Mavis Beacon. I mean, it’s pure fantasy. A keyboard’s just an input device, no-one’d believe it could be used for anything else.

    …hey, can anyone else smell hammers?

  4. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    The Household Goddess – glad we’re in agreement! Oh, and as for what i can divine from the way you typed that – well, i can’t be quite certain, but i think you’re probably a male Azerbaijanian jute miner, somewhere in your late 50s. Did i get that right? ;o)

    Kapitano – Well, im not exactly a great believer in institutional intelligence myself. In one of Terry Pratchett’s books, he gives the formula for working out the intelligence of a mob: take the IQ of the most stupid person there, then divide by the number of people. I’m pretty sure the same principle applies to official bodies like the police and army… ;o)

    That said, i’m sure you’re right about most people peple in authority not believing this stuff – or, at least, i hope you are, as the alternative is pretty worrying. I’m not quite certain that it’s part of a deliberate strategy of misinformation, since that would seem to require a level of planning and coordination. But i can see that it might very well be a case of several people thinking independently “Well, there are reasons for letting this one go.”

    Alex – i don’t want to admit how long it took me to work out why you were going on about hammers, but it was seriously unimpressive, given the way i titled the post. ;o) Also, i’m bitterly envious of your ability to think of Mavis Beacon, because Mavis Beacon versus the Paedophiles would have made a much better title for this post. Ho-hum. :o)

  5. J. Wibble says:

    I suspended disbelief at the sight of the words “Newcastle University”, as they are on my list of “Universities Notorious for Producing Bizarre, Nonsensical and/or Utterly Useless Research”. This list also includes Derby, Nottingham, Durham and East Anglia, for research conclusions including Durham’s “some A level subjects are harder than others” (my quintissential example). Dorothy and I have spent many sleepless nights and bored afternoons inventing research proposals to submit in the hope of getting a research grant – we’re currently formulating a method for whether sexually submissive men are more likely to suck their thumbs in their sleep. :)

    I really can’t add anything to your summary of this horsecack, other than that it reminds me of the time my mother referred to the office IT techs as ‘magic goblins’ or the list 5 Things Hollywood Thinks Computers Can Do. For the record, 90% of technical issues can be solved via the magic of ‘turn it off and on again’ – it’s the other 10% that’s the problem. Human beings, however, can’t be rebooted.

  6. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi J Wibble, sorry for the delay in your comment appearing – my spam filter was feeling trigger-happy again.

    I do have some sympathy for universities, because of the way the funding system essentially forces them to produce a constant stream of papers, and to have them as widely reported as possible (so they they can demonstrate the research is ‘high impact’) – neither thing is conducive to the production of high-quality, slow-burning research. And if i really bend over backwards to be fair, then i guess i can see that, as pure academic research, finding out if different kinds of people type in different ways is interesting, albeit in a fairly low-grade way. The problem may come with an attempt to ‘monetise’ the research, and find a commercial application for it, which the actual researchers may have had little to do with.

    Oh, and i’d actually be quite interested to know if thumb-sucking is predictive of an interest in…er…other types of sucking… If Dorothy and you are ever looking for a research associate ;o)

  7. That’s much more erudite than my response, which would be, “fucking bollocks! back to the creme eggs”. :). Happy Easter!

  8. Neuroskeptic says:

    This looks like a classic example of the sadly popular genre “Quite interesting research that gets over-interpreted by idiots with the tacit approval of the researcher because it gets the publicity (and hence they hope money)”

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