Facelock: Familiar faces could replace password recognition

They call it familiarity-based graphical authentication. You'll call it genius. It's authentication for the rest of us.

People use the same stupid passwords because they can't remember smart ones. But what if it wasn't words but images? British researchers have shown it works - and it's hard to hack.

In a paper published on PeerJ, British researchers Rob Jenkins, Jane L. McLachlan and Karen Renaud tested a knowledge-based authentication method that tests what you know, not what you remember. Based on our powerful recognition capabilities, the method tests whether we find a face familiar or not.

Using images for security is not a new idea; the Passface system was tested back in 2000. But Passface is susceptible to "over the shoulder" attacks since what's memorable to you is also memorable to observers.

Facelock's difference is that the system offers security based on our innate ability to clearly differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces:

When a face is familiar to the viewer, it can be identified from a wide range of different photographs, even when image quality is very poor. Importantly for this study, different images of a familiar face are almost never mistaken for different people. In contrast, our ability to identify unfamiliar faces from photographs is strikingly poor. Very often, different photos of an unfamiliar face are seen as different individuals. Thus, familiarity with a particular face determines one’s ability to identify it across changes in image. [Citations removed for clarity]

Try yourself with this example from the paper:

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 6.59.13 PM

Facelock presents a series of face arrays, where one face is familiar among unfamiliar ones. The user merely chooses the familiar face in each array.

The arrays can be presented in different orders with the faces in different positions. But it is our ability to recognize familiar faces in different images that provides the real security: Even if an attacker knows which faces we chose during one authentication, they are unlikely to recognize the same faces in different pictures.

Testing the theory
The researchers ran two studies with over 400 participants. They included: account holders; attackers who were strangers; and attackers who were personal acquaintances. They tested at one-week and one-year delays.

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Account holders were asked to choose faces of Z-list celebrities: people famous in a narrow field, such as skiing or computer science that you knew; but not well-known to the public at large.

After one week, without writing anything down, 97.5 percent could authenticate their accounts, while zero-acquaintance attackers succeeded less than 1 percent of the time - and that only when the faces were well-known. Personal attackers only succeeded 6.6 percent of the time.

After a year a full 86 percent were able to authenticate. Amazing!

They also tested whether attackers given a clear view of the right faces could authenticate with different photos of the same faces. Only photos of distinctive people - i.e. bald with round glasses - were recognized in different photos.

No pictures of the Joker. Got it.

The Storage Bits take  The ubiquity of "forgot password?" links is proof passwords don't work for humans. And the ease of dictionary attacks on encrypted passwords is proof they don't work well for computers either.

But just as we can recognize a friend's walk before we can see their faces, our pattern recognition skills mean that photos of people we know could be a powerful authentication tool: easy to remember; hard to hack.

Venture capitalists need to pump some money into this idea. Passwords suck and as security consciousness continues to rise - and it will thanks to Mr. Snowden - this will find a ready market.

Comments welcome, as always. How would this work for you?