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Passwords are so last year. Today, it’s all about the doodles

11 Mar 2016

In the future, free-form gestures, such as a doodle or signature, may be used in place of passwords to keep mobile devices secure, according to new research.

Researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey have performed the first study of free-form gesture passwords for smartphones in the field. Janne Lindqvist, study co-author and assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rutgers, describes free-form gesture passwords as that which allows people to draw a password of any shape with any number of fingers.

The Rutgers group's results, combined with its previous studies, show that free-form gesture passwords are a serious alternative to text or other log-in methods, especially for mobile devices. Free-form gesture passwords are very suitable for touchscreens, faster to use, easy to remember and hard to guess, Lindqvist says.

"Preventing people from hacking into your smartphone is a major issue, and it becomes even more important because people carry their smartphones everywhere. Getting access to somebody's phone can give a lot of information about that person and make them vulnerable to lots of different kinds of attacks than can have financial and other repercussions,” he says.

Previous work by other researchers found that text passwords and PINs were hard to use, easy to compromise and unsuitable for mobile devices. Their shortcomings include limited password space, susceptibility to ‘shoulder surfing’ and slow entry, says Lindqvist.

The Rutgers study explored how 91 people used free-form gesture passwords in their daily lives. The researchers installed software on their Android smartphones and the participants created 347 text passwords and 345 gesture passwords. They completed 2,002 log-in tasks involving eight virtual accounts in their smartphones.

Each participant was asked to create and recall passwords for two different sets of accounts created for the study. The first set contained two virtual accounts: online banking and social network. The second set included six accounts: email, online gaming, online dating, shopping, online course and music streaming.

The results showed that the participants preferred shapes (49.28%) and letters (24.07%) for their gesture passwords versus lines (15.76%). Participants also preferred single-finger gestures (93.62%) over multi-finger ones. Participants who used gesture passwords spent 22% less time logging in and 42% less time creating passwords, on average.

Smartphones store a treasure trove of personal and sensitive data, such as emails and financial information. As people increasingly rely on smartphones, it is increasingly critical to keep those devices and the virtual accounts in them secure, Lindqvist says.

"If you get access to a typical smartphone, that can reveal their whole social network. People take photos with them. They might be just completely innocent photos of their family, but they might still not want them in the public. People do online banking with them,” Lingqvist says.

Yulong Yang, a doctoral candidate who developed the software for the study and is its lead student author, says "if you have access to others' phones, you can pretend to be them and impersonate them."

Last year, more than 70% of adults owned a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011, according to the nonprofit Pew Research Center. Furthermore, according to several reports, smartphones are vulnerable to cyber attacks and cyber threats to mobile phones are on the rise.

Free-form gestures could be expanded to laptops and tablet/laptop combos with touch screens - even doors with touch screens instead of key locks or swipe cards. They also could expanded to access to services over the internet, according to Lindqvist.

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