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West Virginia University Students Help Develop Mobile Security Software

The Secure Selfies application prevents unauthorized access of mobile phones, tablets and their contents by using the device’s camera to lock and unlock it.

It was a typical Friday for West Virginia University engineering students Alex Dunn, Steven Amerman and Walter Ferrell.

At their Kingwood Street home in Morgantown, Ferrell washed dishes in a dimly lit kitchen and Dunn cooked boxed macaroni on the stovetop. While Amerman was down the hall screaming at his opponent in an online League of Legends match, the two complained about a frustrating situation they had gotten themselves into: A roommate, who still owed them $750 in rent, was moving out the next morning and had given no indication of whether he was going to pay up.

Complicating matters further, they weren’t sure they would be able to cover the unexpected expense with their meager student-employee incomes.

Having finished the dishes, Ferrell stirred a packet of grape-flavored drink mix into a pitcher of tap water, sighed and said, “This is what our lives have come to.”

While the three friends deal with the same hardships most college students face, their time at WVU has been anything but typical.

Like many of their peers, Dunn, Amerman and Ferrell balance class and work schedules, but they also are software developers for Confirmix, a Morgantown-based technology startup that has garnered the attention of high-profile investors in both public and private sectors.

The company, started earlier this year, has created consumer and enterprise identity authentication technologies that use biometric and facial recognition software.

The company’s work in the business sector has been kept under wraps, but a consumer application called Secure Selfies is currently in early stages of development.

Secure Selfies will use the company’s technology to prevent unauthorized access of mobile phones, tablets and their contents by using the device’s camera to lock and unlock it.

The application has been featured on CNBC’s Tech Crowd, the development team has met with wealthy investors, and while the startup could soon be worth millions, it has roots firmly planted in WVU’s Statler College of Engineering.

It all started in Thirimachos Bourlai’s human and computer interaction class, which Ferrell took as an elective in the fall 2013 semester.

Amerman, who had recently moved in with Ferrell, eventually joined the class after attending one of Bourlai’s lectures while he waited for Ferrell to get out of class.

Amerman, a senior from North Berwick, Maine, said Bourlai had him hooked in that short hour.

“I went home and immediately registered,” he said.

Over the course of the semester, Amerman and Ferrell impressed Bourlai, who promised them jobs in the school’s multi-spectral imaging lab if they passed his class.

“He told us ‘I’ll give you a job if you get an A,’” said Ferrell, a junior from Elkview in Kanawha County.

Little did they know Bourlai had been recruiting them for some time to help him create the software he came up with years earlier.

Working odd jobs for cash at the time, Amerman and Ferrell happily accepted the offer and got the needed grade, not knowing exactly what Bourlai had in mind.

Soon after, a chance encounter in an elevator led to the addition of Dunn, a senior from Scott Depot in Putnam County.

With the three students on board, Bourlai pitched the idea for a project that utilized biometric scanning, which Dunn, Amerman and Ferrell admit they knew nothing about.

Out of necessity, they quickly figured things out though, because Bourlai gave them a major project and very little time to complete it.

The project was to create the first iteration of the Secure Selfie application so it could be demoed for investors.

“He came to us and said ‘You have a week to finish this,’” Ferrell said.

A difficult task even for an expert in biometric programming, the three students said they worked for what seemed like a week straight.

Dunn said they wrote 1,500 lines of code, which he indicated was a lot for the type of demo they did. It took 150 total hours of work to complete, he added.

They each took on tasks that favored their area of expertise. Amerman programmed, Dunn coded algorithms and Ferrell kept the server built on his computer functioning properly.

Investors were impressed with the demo, Dunn said.

The team has made several versions since then and hope to have the application out to market in the near future.

Ferrell said the application’s name was influenced by several instances of celebrity photos being spread across the Internet after their phones were hacked.

Bourlai added that mobile security is a major concern for many and that there already is a market for applications like Secure Selfies.

“When more biometric safeguards are built into a phone, it is more difficult to hack,” he said, though he added it can also complicate the user experience.

“You probably don’t want to scan your fingerprint, face and all these other things just to use your phone,” he said. “But, if you’re a banker, you may want that extra security.”

That’s why the team is looking at creating security tiers with multiple modes of authentication.

While Secure Selfies is the property and brand of Confirmix, the technology it uses is owned and licensed by WVU.

Confirmix chairman and co-founder Patrick Esposito said all the company’s heavy lifting was done at the university.

“The components and algorithms of Secure Selfies — what I call the secret sauce — came out of WVU,” Esposito said.

Ferrell said he is proud of that and thinks it’s something the WVU community should embrace.

“The thing is, this isn’t happening at MIT, Harvard or Carnegie Mellon,” he said. “It’s happening here in West Virginia.

“You don’t see stuff like this here,” Ferrell added. “We’re pretty normal guys. Before all this, we just sat around and played video games.”

A lot has happened since Dunn, Amerman and Ferrel accepted Bourlai’s offer.

Ferrell didn’t want to give any details, but he said he, Dunn and Amerman could make a small fortune if things go right.

And while the prospect of making millions is enticing, Dunn, Amerman and Ferrell say they plan on completing their degrees at WVU. They also said they would consider continuing their studies in graduate school, though that depends on what happens to the company.

If the last year is any indication of what could come, things could take off.

In the meantime, the team is waiting out the final days of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 to get the Secure Selfies application up and running on Google’s mobile marketplace. If the fundraiser is successful, the team will quickly develop versions for Apple and Windows devices.

While they only have 26 percent of the $50,000 currently pledged with three days left in the campaign, the team expects the needed money to come in time.

Even if the goal isn’t met, the team expects it will only be a matter of time until people are using their technology.

While that would likely be enough for most, Dunn, Amerman and Ferrell say their measure of success is getting WVU President Gordon Gee to post a selfie of him using their application on his social media sites.

Gee, known for many things — his extensive bow tie collection chief among them — is an avid selfie-taker and often posts pictures of himself with students, celebrities and random objects.

“If he would do that, we would be so legitimate,” Ferrell said.

A launch date for Secure Selfies hasn’t been set yet, but the team expects it to be available for download on Android in spring 2015.

©2014 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)