Tech & Science

Facelock Could Replace Alphanumeric Website Passwords

6.27_NW0101_Facelock
07/04/14
In the Magazine
Facial recognition technology could put an end to pesky passwords Mitchell Funk/Getty

Passwords are the worst. Your employer, your bank and your smartphone all require one. And, for your own security, they want it to be unique and difficult, like, say, X32$q#fs@Gg92. Of course, nobody does that, opting instead for something easier to remember—and easier to hack. (Case in point: “123456” is the most common password on the Internet; the runner-up is “password.”)

As Web security suffers from the limits of human memory, some psychologists and developers are experimenting with new kinds of passwords that play to your brain’s knack for remembering faces. Science shows that random letters and numbers are tricky to remember. But faces? Those are easy.

A new set of experiments from researchers at the University of York, England, explore memory’s powerful connection with images of people. They discovered that to a stranger, different pictures of the same person often appear to be of different people. But when you look at people you know—from any angle, wearing sunglasses, whatever—you recognize them.

The scientists call their system Facelock. It’s not on the market yet, but here’s how it might work: A website asks you to choose a few people you recognize—the more disparate in your life, the better. A good mix, for example, might be your best friend from junior high, your cousin in Arizona, your hairdresser and your favorite folk cellist (it can’t be anyone too recognizable, or else it’s a security risk). You’d be asked to select a few different images of each of these people. Then, the next time you log in, you see a series of 3-by-3 face grids—each one displaying eight random faces and one that you’ve chosen. Find a familiar face four times in a row, and you’re in.

For you, choosing the person you know is simple. For an intruder, it’s a guessing game.

“If you are familiar with that face, you see through all those superficial changes in that image without even noticing,” psychologist Rob Jenkins, the lead author of the study, tells Newsweek.

There’s apparently only one similar face-based password system currently on the market. The technology, created by Reston, Virginia–based Passfaces, assigns faces to you (as opposed to you picking them). “So far, adoption has been pretty slow,” CEO Jon Shaw tells Newsweek. “Lots of companies look at passwords as free, even though they can have a high cost in a number of ways.”

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