Alumni Spotlight-Lillie Coney

February 2017

Lillie Coney '82, '00 publishes patent that could influence the world of cyber security

Lillie Coney graduated from Lamar University in 1982 with a degree in Political Science and later moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked in policy positions for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. There she learned that in order to succeed further, she would need a degree that did not currently exist. Not phased, Coney returned to Lamar University, and with the help of her advisor, created her own degree plan that would lead her to influence the world of cyber security through her patents.

After working with Congress and exploring public policy and the Internet, Coney left the Hill to focus on the societal implications of the Internet. She contemplated the role of public policy in computing and found that policy making was not enough to truly help consumers, so she drafted her first patent. Since then, she has incorporated Bruce Corporation and worked on many more patent ideas. Her most recent groundbreaking patent could help rid the world of passwords, pins, and other security measures that inconvenience us all and do not reliably increase security.

"I was tired of putting in a password to get into my computer and frequently having to change my password to an ever growing string of letters, numbers and special characters that were to difficult to remember. Who would not want to get rid of reliance upon passwords as the sole means of protecting their digital devices and information?" Coney said.

The new proximity-based system, in layman's terms, will work something like a key that will unlock the owner's computers and other devices based on simple proximity rules between computing devices. The security process will not work when the key is too far away from the devices (say, two feet away) or when someone else may enter a room where a secured device (like a computer) is present. The response to someone unknown might be that the device's screen will dim and files will go into sleep mode so the device's contents cannot be accessed.

"Computer security is based upon the principles of authorization and authentication - 'something you know, something you have, or something you are.' The Proximity-Based System adds a new condition to achieve security - 'somewhere you are'," said Coney.

Besides using these security measures for business, Coney is working to make them usable for everyday life. "If an umbrella is being left that has a unique wireless tag, an app on a phone might give an alert that sounds like thunder," Coney said. "What if you could prevent a credit card from being used because the bank would know if you had your card in your possession or not? What about preventing your pet from running away or getting separated from you because an alert from a collar would let you know they are out of the yard? These are a few of the applications or uses for this innovation."

The system works by taking something to form a "key" - like an employee ID with a wireless feature for example; and using that as the "password" to unlock digital devices. However, the key's owner must be in close proximity for the key to work. "I care about privacy and security - I wanted to have both. The proximity-based security patent uses wireless devices to govern security, and not the identity of the person using the devices," Coney said.

Coney said she owes much of her success to Lamar University. "Lamar was of tremendous importance in my getting to where I am today...Lamar University was the only institution with the vision and flexibility to allow me to structure my MPA classes to allow my core courses to be in the MPA program and my electives to be in computing science."

Even in her undergraduate career, Coney said Lamar stood out to her. "The thing I like most about Lamar was the size of most classes, which supported group learning and the opportunity to develop relationships with professors. I learn best from what I hear. Reading is fun and involving, but a book cannot respond to thoughts that may arise as it is read."

Coney encourages women in STEM fields to make their own goals and not stop until they are met. "Do not let anyone tell you what a scientist, technologist, engineer, or mathematician looks like. There is a movie called Hidden Figures that tells the story of the nation's first computers...these were not machines, but women mathematicians," Coney said. "We are in the midst of a global economic, technological and innovation revolution that relies upon people to create designs, repairs and improvements upon computing technology. There are about 100,000 jobs in cyber security that are open and we do not have the people trained to fill them. The irony of the new digital information age is that people do not need to travel from their homes to go to great paying jobs every day, the jobs come to where ever you are. Often people are working from their homes and make five to six figure salaries with great benefits," continued Coney.

Coney is happy with her career and proud of her patents. One was issued in South Africa and others within the United States, but she knows she has much further to go. "I am not finished yet, so I cannot say what I am most proud of," Coney said. "I think that I am most proud of something I have yet to do."

By Kaylie Smith