Japanese researchers have come up with an ingenious solution to the perennial security problem of shoulder surfing and screen capture malware – make it impossible for co-workers or screen scrapers to see what has been entered by filling the screen with dummy mouse cursors.

The problem being addressed by Japan Science and Technology (JST) Agency was that while dummy keypads used in applications such as online banks work well as a defence against software keyloggers they can still be subverted by screen capturing malware.

They are also in some cases vulnerable to individuals in the same room as the users memorising PIN numbers or passwords as they are entered.

To counter this, JST’s lateral-thinking solution is to fill the screen in front of a PIN keypad with numerous moving dummy mouse cursors, disguising the user’s real cursor in the visual confusion.

In tests, upping the number of cursors to 20 or more caused an attacker to fail to guess the correct PIN number 99 percent of the time.

The team also created a second ‘SymmetricCursors’ version, which takes the concept to an extreme by moving cursors to every character position on a dial even as the user moves to the cursor to the real key.

The team claims that users don’t themselves become confused about which keys they are pressing despite the lack of visual feedback.

“We still need to find out more about how people recognise their cursor,” said JPL researcher Keita Watanabe in a video demonstrating the system.

“Now that we’ve discovered this phenomenon we want to use eye-trackers and fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging) to learn about the biometric relationships,” he said.

A video explaining the ERATO Igarashi Design User Interface Project system can be found on YouTube.

It's not clear how easily keylogging malware could be adjusted to track cursor movement to counter such a design; a proof-of-concept IE exploit of that technique surfaced last \december. It might be difficult is the technology was implemented as a plug-in within specific browsers because the cursors would be extremely difficult to distinguish from dummy ones.