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Duquesne prof uses technology to authenticate works attributed to Lincoln

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 12:08 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | For the Tr
Duquesne University computer Science Professor Patrick Juola, 46, of Whitehall talks about using computational methods of tracking language variations to identify authors in his office at Duquesne University in uptown Pittsburgh on Monday, February 11, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Stephanie Strasburg | For the Tr
Printed transcripts of the early works attributed to Abraham Lincoln sit on a desk in the office of computer science Professor Patrick Juola at Duquesne University in uptown Pittsburgh on Monday, February 11, 2013. The words have been salvaged from old documents and newspapers that are brittle and yellowed with age, Juola says. 'Nobody was saying, oh this is going to be important someday,' he said of the original documents. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Stephanie Strasburg | For the Tr
Duquesne University computer science Professor Patrick Juola, 46, of Whitehall uses computational methods of tracking language variations to identify authors. He’s been working on a project authenticating early works attributed to Abraham Lincoln, such as letters to the editor and other correspondence from his pre-White House days. Here, he looks up the number of Lincoln-era documents he has at his computer in his office at Duquesne University in uptown Pittsburgh on Monday, February 11, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

On the 204th anniversary of his birth, Abraham Lincoln's youthful proclivity for penning epistles to a weekly newspaper anonymously and under pseudonyms are the stuff of a modern-day computer-aided paper chase.

Patrick Juola, a computer science professor at Duquesne University, is using a computer program based on stylometry — the study of an individual's unique writing characteristics — to authenticate those possible early Lincoln writings for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

Working in the Evaluating Variations in Language computer lab on the seventh floor of Duquesne's Fisher Hall, Juola taps a computer keyboard to compare copies of digitized letters Lincoln is believed to have penned against works confirmed written by the 16th president.

Daniel Stowell, director of the Lincoln Papers Project in Springfield, said scholars have grappled for decades with authenticating a collection of anonymous letters and documents signed in pen names.

Although Lincoln's later works are well known, these letters date from the time Lincoln was about 25 until he was 33, a period when he was a relatively unknown state assemblyman.

“It would be wonderful with this technology to confirm those we're suspicious were his or even confirm new things he wrote,” Stowell said.

“What's exciting for us is we're using cutting-edge tools to solve a century-old mystery,” he added.

The technology was sufficiently cutting edge to earn Juola a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency to spin off Juola & Associates, a consulting company designed to put the new technology into commercial use.

In a world increasingly inhabited by hackers and identity thieves, DARPA was interested in its implications for cyber security.

The program identifies writers by style, word usage and speech patterns, all of which create unique patterns.

“Every word you say or write tells a little about you,” Juola said.

He has used stylometric programs to testify as an expert witness on document authentication in court in fraud and inheritance cases.

“We had one in court that was a classic Agatha Christie case, ‘Did Aunt Prunella really write the will before she took her strychnine tonic?'” Juola said grinning. Although confidentiality agreements prohibit him from discussing specifics, Juola said his client was pleased with the outcome.

The technology has implications for computer security. Ultimately, Juola said he'd like to refine the technology to a program that would allow a computer to identify a writer, eliminating the need for passwords.

“I don't like having 56 passwords,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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