What if you sat down at your computer to work and it recognized you merely by the way you moved the mouse?

This kind of authentication may not be so far off in the future. The Department of Defense says its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working to create a system that identifies people through a "cognitive fingerprint," rather than using biometric sensors to read fingerprints and other physically identifiable traits.

The Active Authentication program aims to develop new ways of ensuring the person using a computer console is authorized to do so. It is leveraging software to identify unique aspects of a person based on behavioral traits.

The computer user authentication systems being used today require an extra step, such as entering a password or scanning a fingerprint or iris. Passwords inherently have drawbacks, because they can be cracked. The current biometric tools are safer but still take time and interrupt natural workflow.

"What I would like to do is I'd like to move us to a world where you sit down at a console, identify yourself, and you just start working," Richard Guidorizzi, manager of the Beyond Passwords program (part of the Active Authentication effort) said in an article on a Defense Department Website. "The authentication happens in the background -- invisible to you -- while you continue doing your work without interruptions."

The Active Authentication program will have several phases. In the first phase, researchers will look into biometric methods that don't require additional sensors to capture a person's identifying information. The software will be designed to track behavioral patterns and traits to develop a cognitive identity that can be used to authenticate the user. These traits will include how a person moves the mouse or even a person's writing style (as identified by the use of language in emails or documents), DARPA said. It will seek technology that is viable for both small-scale and large-scale deployments during this program phase.

Later phases will focus on integrating new technologies into a software system that can be deployed across the Defense Department to protect desktop and laptop computers. DARPA plans to use open APIs to create a modular system that can leverage other third-party biometrics software and hardware as it is developed in the future.