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For Safe and Secure Passwords, Facing the Familiar

For Safe and Secure Passwords, Facing the Familiar

Forgotten passwords are a big problem for both IT managers and users. Effective passwords must blend memorability and security: Simple passwords are easy to remember but easy to crack, while complex passwords are hard to crack but hard to remember.

While biometric solutions including finger-print readers and retina scanners have been used for more than a decade in certain industries, the technology is expensive and has had accuracy problems slowing diffusion.

Now, a newly proposed alternative hopes to build upon lessons learned. The technology, called “Facelock” is based on the psychology of face recognition.

Decades of psychological research has revealed a fundamental difference in the recognition of familiar and unfamiliar faces. Humans can recognize familiar faces across a wide range of images, even when their image quality is poor.

In contrast, recognition of unfamiliar faces is tied to a specific image, so much so that different photos of the same unfamiliar face are often thought to be different people.

Facelock exploits this psychological effect to create a new type of authentication system whose details were published in the journal PeerJ.

Familiarity with a particular face determines a person’s ability to identify it across different photographs and as a result a set of faces that are known only to a single individual can be used to create a personalized “lock.” Access is then granted to anyone who demonstrates recognition of the faces across images, and denied to anyone who does not.

To register with the system, users nominate a set of faces that are well known to them, but are not well-known to other people.

The researchers found that it was surprisingly easy to generate faces that have this property.

For example, a favorite jazz trombonist, or a revered poker player are more than suitable — effectively one person’s idol is another person’s stranger.

By combining faces from across a user’s domains of familiarity — say, music and sports — the researchers were able to create a set of faces that were known to that user only. To know all of those faces is then the key to Facelock.

The lock consists of a series of face grids and each grid is constructed so that one face is familiar to the user, whilst all other faces are unfamiliar. Authentication is a matter of simply touching the familiar face in each grid.

For the legitimate user, this is a trivial task, as the familiar face stands out from the others. However, a fraudster looking at the same grid hits a problem — none of the faces stand out.

Building authentication around familiarity has several advantages.

Unlike password or PIN-based systems, a familiarity-based approach never requires users to commit anything to memory. Nor does it require them to name the faces in order to authenticate. The only requirement is to indicate which face looks familiar.

Psychological research has shown that familiarity with a face is virtually impossible to lose and so this system is naturally robust. In the current study, users authenticated easily even after a one-year interval. In contrast, disused passwords can be forgotten within days.

As well as being extremely durable, familiarity is very hard to fake. This makes the system difficult for fraudsters to crack.

In the current study, the researchers asked volunteer attackers to watch a successful authentication sequence based on four target faces, so that they could pick out the same four faces from similar test grids. These attacks could be defeated simply by using different photos of the same faces in the test grids.

For the user, who is familiar with the target faces, it is easy to recognize the faces across a range of images. For the attacker, who is unfamiliar with the target faces, generalizing across images is difficult.

Lead author Rob Jenkins, Ph.D., of the University of York in the UK, said that “pretending to know a face that you don’t know is like pretending to know a language that you don’t know –it just doesn’t work. The only system that can reliably recognize faces is a human who is familiar with the faces concerned.”

The initial study elegantly combines the cognitive science of face perception and the computer science of secure authentication to work in sympathy with the strengths and limitations of human memory.

Researchers hope that software developers will now take this framework and create a powerful application with optimal usability.

Source: Peerj


Set of people photo by shutterstock.

For Safe and Secure Passwords, Facing the Familiar

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). For Safe and Secure Passwords, Facing the Familiar. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 25 Jun 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.