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The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $240,000 Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) to three UCI professors who are researching distraction in security. The co-principal investigators for the project include Informatics Professor Alfred Kobsa, Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science Gene Tsudik, and Associate Professor of Cognitive Science Bruce Berg.

Today’s technology allows, and sometimes requires, people to engage in security-critical tasks in often distracting public spaces. For example, a user may need to enter a PIN, enter a password, or solve a CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) on his smartphone in distracting settings. According to the group’s proposal summary, “User errors or delays while performing security-critical tasks can lead to undesirable or even disastrous consequences.” The impact of such errors or delays has yet to be investigated. However, using a fully automated experimental setup, this project will study whether and how sensory stimuli influence users’ behavior and trigger mistakes.

The project is in its preliminary stages, but, according to the professors, it entails two potentially transformational research ideas: “If sensory stimuli have a negative effect on users performing security-relevant tasks, its better understanding can lead to awareness and eventual countermeasures,” they say. “If, however, certain auditory stimuli actually improve user performance, new opportunities would arise for applying audio stimuli as a means of aiding users.” The work also “further explores the feasibility of conducting security-related user studies in a fully automated manner, which makes large-scale studies feasible and also avoids any potential experimenter bias.”

According to the NSF website, funding from the NSF EAGER program “may be used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches.” NSF EAGER-funded projects often entail radically different and experimental approaches to scientific research.