U.K. scientists demo graphic passwords

Doodles on touch screens could replace the numbers and letters currently used for passwords online.

Jeff Yan demonstrates his graphic passcode system on a PDA. Newcastle University

Think it's tough coming up with memorable yet secure letter/number combo passwords? Wait until you have to think of something to draw.

A system devised by computer scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K. uses human-scribbled doodles in lieu of traditional passwords.

Don't worry. One need not be the next Picasso for the graphic passcode system to work.

The Background Draw-a-Secret (BDAS) system, developed by Jeff Yan, a computer science lecturer at the School of Computing Science at Newcastle University, and graduate student Paul Dunphy, lets people choose from a selection of base images.

The image is then visually overlaid with a grid and people "trace" the image on a touch screen to the best of their ability. Their unique drawing skill for that image, or lack thereof, becomes the passcode.

Each time after that, the chosen image appears as the passcode prompt. If the person's doodle over it matches up with the original one they made, they're in. To make it user-friendly, the doodle does not have to match up exactly to the original sketch.

"Studies have shown that people find it easier to remember images than words or numbers and our system has proven over 1,000 times more secure than people's normal passwords," Yan said in a statement.

The system is secure enough to be used at cash machines, as well as for computers and mobile devices. The BDAS's subjectivity by nature makes it more secure against hackers than a system derived from a fixed set of options like numbers and letters. For example, password images that are not symmetrical and have many strokes or longer continuous strokes are more difficult for automated hacker programs to crack, according to Yan.

People would probably also be less likely to keep a cheat sheet, as is often the case with complicated passwords.

Yan is showing off the Background Draw-a-Secret software on iPhones, laptops and PDAs this week in London at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, the U.K.'s leading science and technology fair that's open to the public through Thursday. The fair, which showcases the latest science and engineering projects from the country's leading researchers, is hosted by the Royal Society, the U.K.'s national academy of science.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Yan's exhibit at the fair is being co-sponsored by Microsoft Research, Cambridge (U.K.). Microsoft announced in May that it will include a multitouch interface with Windows 7 that could be available in 2009 and will work with existing touch screens.

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