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Close Encounters
In “Close Encounters of Third Kind,” Francois Truffaut plays a UFO researcher who uses music as an authentication tool for the aliens. (Columbia / EMI via YouTube)

Amazon’s inventors have come up with a computer-based system that makes use musical transformations to authenticate a whole group of users — and block access if anyone strikes a false note.

The concept, which is called chained authentication using musical transforms, is the subject of a patent that was sought back in 2014 and published today.

Here’s how it could work: When a pre-specified group requests access to protected data, the computer service holding that data sends out a “musical seed” to the first user on the group’s list. This seed can be an actual melody, or it can be a series of seemingly garbled tones.

The first user runs the tones through a transformation — for example, changing notes from sharps to flats, or bringing the melody down a fifth. Different users apply their own assigned algorithms to twist and turn the melody, and the last user on the list sends the audio file back to the service for authentication.

Musical authentication
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows how a musical notes can be transformed by each user and passed on to the next one for authentication. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

If the users perform the correct sequence of musical transforms, the data service should recognize the melody (or the tone sequence) and let everyone in the group get access to the data. But if the audio is out of tune, access is denied.

Depending on precisely how it’s out of tune, the service — or other users — might even be able to figure out who the culprit is.

Someday, that scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — the one where humans and aliens link up through shared harmonies — could become a down-to-earth reality for human-to-human authentication.

Don’t hold your breath, though: There’s no indication that Amazon is incorporating musical ID checks into any of its products. As a rule, the company doesn’t comment on its patents, and many of them don’t get past the “weird idea” stage.

And for what it’s worth, a couple of the inventors have joined new bands since the patent application was filed three years ago. Darren Canavor, Jon McClintock and George Stathakopoulos are listed on the form, but McClintock has since moved on from Amazon to Seattle-based Mixpanel.

Stathakopoulos, meanwhile, left his post as Amazon’s vice president of information security and corporate IT last year to become Apple’s vice president of corporate information security. So if Apple lets you hum a tune to unlock your iPhone someday, you’ll know where the idea got started.

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