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Monday, June 10, 2002
On Hardware

Passwords may soon not be words

FOR those Net surfers who find it a headache to remember their passwords, what with some of them being obscure, help could soon be on its way.

An image-based password system being developed by the US-based Microsoft uses a library of faces, instead of words, to log on to a network.

To log on to the system, being developed at Microsoft's research lab in the USA, a person would have to choose half a dozen faces in a particular order as password.

According to Microsoft researcher Michael Roe, such systems could be useful for people who prefer pictures to text, a report published by BBC Online says.

"People don't remember passwords but they are good at remembering faces," he said.

Though research on such systems is still at an incipient stage, experts 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 says.

However, even though pictures might prove popular with users, there would not be much advantage to having them online.

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

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

Such biometric systems have gained ground since September 11 and there is 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.

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

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

"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.

For those who do not trust their memory, 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.