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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Turning pictures into passwords
Man on keyboard
Are the days of typing passwords numbered?

As we become ever more reliant on computers, remembering your passwords or coming up with one obscure enough to be secure can be a huge headache.

If your password is as simple as the word, password, then logging on via a picture might be the answer.

Microsoft is one of several firms working on image-based password systems.

One such system being developed at Microsoft's research lab in the US uses a single image on which the person makes a series of clicks. A painting with plenty of detail is the most suitable.

Researchers are also working on a system which uses a library of faces.

A person has to choose half a dozen in a particular order as their password.

Smart passwords

Microsoft researcher Michael Roe believes such systems could be useful for people who prefer pictures to text.

"People don't remember passwords but they are good at remembering faces," he said. But he is not convinced that it will be the way forward.


It is as easy for a hacker to take a picture off a machine as it is to take a text password

Dave Duke, Cryptic Software
"It is interesting research but I'm not sure it will end up being deployed as a product," he said.

Instead a smart card system, in which users simply swipe a card at a reader attached to the computer, could be the way passwords go in future.

The big advantage is that it does not rely on human memory, although one drawback is that some people will inevitably lose their cards.

Microsoft is so keen on the idea that it has already moved half of its staff to smart card security cards.

Mr Roe believes many other firms will develop similar systems over the next five years or so.

"The problem is that PCs don't have readers at the moment. Organisations would also have to be able to issue such cards and have a system in place for loss or theft," he said.

Fingerprinting

However, experts still see potential uses for picture passwords.

Chief Technology Officer with anti-virus firm Cryptic Software, Dave Duke, believes picture-based passwords could play a part in everyday life, such as at ATM machines.

"It would be harder for people to steal a picture password," he said.

Although pictures might prove popular with users there would not be much advantage to having them online, he said.

"It is as easy for a hacker to take a picture off a machine as it is to take a text password," said Mr Duke.

He thinks the next stage for passwords will lie in identifying users by their fingerprints.

Such biometric systems have gained ground since 11 September and an increasing interest in security both off and online.

Computer chips that contain information about fingerprints, iris pattern, hand geometry or voice print could be fitted in passports within four years.

Text is best

But research fellow at the London School of Economics Peter Sommer questions whether biometrics are the way forward for password security.


The advantage of passwords is that you are completely reliant on yourself

Peter Sommer, LSE
"Large scale systems will have to cope with tens of millions of images and data. It is going to take up significant processing time," he said.

"It's not going to be that great if each recognition takes three minutes."

Despite the problems of coming up with a good password and remembering it, Mr Sommer thinks it will remain the predominant security method for the foreseeable future.

"The advantage of passwords is that you are completely reliant on yourself," he said.

For those that do not trust their memories, there is plenty of help at hand, he points out.

Free software is available on the internet to store passwords, though you still have to remember the password to open the programme.

Handheld computers can also be encrypted to store all passwords.

You can hear more about picture passwords on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

See also:

10 May 02 | Science/Nature
15 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
17 Jul 00 | Science/Nature
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