Europe's largest hackathon

Since its debut in 2014, the annual HackZurich event has become Europe’s largest and most prestigious hackathon, with 600 participants chosen from thousands of applicants. Participants split up into competing teams of two to five people who are challenged to develop innovative web, mobile, and hardware applications in just 40 hours.

This year, RSA Senior Security Engineer Youssef El Masry led the winning team that competed in Logitech’s “Make the world more interactive” challenge. Youssef spoke with RSA Security about the innovative app his team developed for Logitech devices that can improve online productivity, enhance information accessibility, and support passwordless authentication.

"A more intuitive, efficient user experience"

RSA: Congratulations on winning the Logitech challenge at HackZurich, Youssef. Can you tell us briefly about the app your team developed and the features and capabilities it enables?

Youssef: Thank you! We developed a technology solution that seamlessly integrates with Logitech devices to provide a more intuitive, efficient user experience. With our solution, users can simply highlight a word or phrase online and with one click they can translate it, google it, or use a GPT AI model like ChatGPT to identify and explore topics related to it.

RSA: That sounds amazing. Can you describe these capabilities in more detail?

Youssef: We developed a robust text parsing mechanism that effectively identifies unclear or unfamiliar text passages within documents. When the user clicks the mouse, the app brings up a user interface that goes into interactive mode and starts to identify and parse text in real time. There are two aspects to this: one is interacting with generative prompt engines like ChatGPT and the other is translating words and phrases from other languages.

With the capability for generative AI interaction, upon receiving a user’s request, our app communicates directly with services like Bard or ChatGPT. These services understand user queries and provide contextually relevant responses. So basically, this is something you can do when you’ve selected and highlighted some text in a book or a blog or whatever you are currently reading. You don’t have to go elsewhere to find specific answers to learn more about the content. With one click you highlight the text and it gives you a set of questions you yourself might ask and provides answers to them from AI engines. It just makes it much easier for you.

And in the case of translation, let’s say you run across a phrase or a word, and you want the translation for that specific word. With one click you highlight the text and get exactly what you need, all in less than ten milliseconds. You don’t have the distraction of having to leave the page to find the meaning of the word and then get back into what you were doing.

RSA: Everything happens without the user ever having to leave the page they’re on. Wow.

Youssef: Exactly. Everything is designed to ensure a distraction-free experience. AI-generated responses are displayed in a small, unobtrusive pop-up window within the web browser, so users can easily access information without being pulled away from their primary tasks. And a generative prompt engine like ChatGPT is just one example of what you could tell the app to integrate. You could also do this with, say, Brainboard.

The Logitech mouse we worked with has a lot of buttons that can be customized; you can use any of these mouse clicks to just transport you to a whole new world while you are still on your same web page. You can navigate anywhere.

And it doesn’t just need to be from a mouse. You can migrate this technology to anything. The mouse can do a lot. The keyboard can do a lot. The camera can do a lot. Any Logitech device would work because what we created is basically an application that just customizes what the device can do. You plug it in, or connect through Bluetooth, and that gives the device these capabilities.

RSA: So it’s not only about productivity and efficiency—it’s also about the user experience.

Youssef: That’s right. Think about authenticating to different apps on a mobile device. This app can save the password and enter it for you so you don’t have to do anything other than click. That’s both a more efficient use of time and a better user experience. It’s another way our project is designed to streamline the process of accessing information so that users no longer need to perform multiple steps or waste time searching for information.

Assistive technologies and passwordless authentication

RSA: Speaking of passwords, how could this app relate to passwordless authentication?

Youssef: We are committed to extending our solution to the realm of assistive technologies, with a focus on passwordless authentication. Our vision is to use mouse gestures, potentially involving buttons or camera movement, to eliminate the need for “Something you have” and “Something you know” authentication factors and instead embrace “Something you are” authentication. We are excited about the potential for passwordless authentication using mouse clicks, a feature that aligns with our commitment to user-centric innovation.

As we worked on the app, we talked about wanting to do multi-modal passwordless authentication as a future project. We had many discussions with regard to the initial setup and authentication using mouse clicks, keyboard keypresses, or auditory feedback, and then the confirmation. The accessibility would make it easier for users to log into their devices without entering a password.

If you look at your keyboard right now, you’ll see that below the F and the J, there are raised bumps. These bumps make it easier for people who cannot otherwise recognize those letters to recognize them. But from there, they have to memorize the whole keyboard. Think about having to enter a password within a short window, and you only have the bumps on the F and J keys and your memory of your keyboard’s layout to find the right keys in time.

The first thing we thought was why make it harder for people that way? Why not instead just have a few clicks with the keyboard presses that would recognize the user?

That’s just one of a lot of things we wanted to test. There was also the user mood in regard to the mouse clicks and the movement of the mouse. How is the user feeling? Is the user feeling sad? Happy? These are all things that we managed to think of as a team, but we didn’t manage to implement in the 40 hours we had to complete the challenge.

Winning after 36 sleepless hours

RSA: Let’s talk about the event experience itself. What’s it like to participate in HackZurich?

Youssef: HackZurich is one of Europe’s largest hackathons. It’s a diverse hackathon for innovative projects, where minds from software development, project management, and cybersecurity come to work on innovative projects—and where tech companies come to try to find solutions for their critical problems. So basically I wanted to expand my knowledge in the different areas represented there. The idea that I could merge them all together and see what the outcome would be? Perfect!

RSA: How did you end up working on this particular project?

Youssef: The way it works at Hack Zurich, the companies sponsoring the challenges conduct workshops where you go to learn more about them. And, ironically, Logitech was the only one I had not attended. One of my friends at the event told me about it. And he said he thought it would be one of the most creative challenges in the event because, unlike many of the other companies, Logitech doesn’t give you any specific guidelines about what to do; they leave it up to you to come up with something. It’s based on how creative you are.

RSA: I understand these are team-based challenges. How did your team come together and how did the idea for what you created for Logitech come about?

Youssef: The day before the hackathon itself was to start, I was brainstorming and came up with an idea but I wasn’t having much luck finding anyone to match up with to work on it. It was after I ran into my friend who told me about the Logitech workshop that things really began to take shape. He pulled in a couple of other friends who were interested in the Logitech challenge but had no idea how they wanted to proceed. I told them my idea and they told me, “okay, you’re the team leader now—teach us what we are going to do.” And we were off and running from there.

RSA: What was it like to win after that 40-hour effort?

Youssef: I actually didn’t sleep for 36 hours. I slept two hours the first day and two hours the second day. And on the last day we submitted the project at 8:00 a.m. and I didn’t even sleep after that! Then when they announced the winners and called our names, I remember I was actually away from the stage. One of my teammates came running out to get me. I was just like, “You are kidding me!”

It was amazing. I was very satisfied—maybe even more satisfied—before even knowing we had won first place. I was satisfied with how our team managed to integrate everything and make it work and with the outcome. All our efforts paid off: The sleepless nights, all the time I spent on coding and designing the system architecture, everything. It was an amazing experience.

Interview responses have been edited for clarity.

HackZurich 2024 will take place September 13-15, 2024.