Picture password system promises to strengthen online security

August 7, 2013

An Arizona State University computer scientist is working to strengthen the line of defense in online security with a password-protection system that potentially helps enhance security features of the Microsoft Windows 8 computer operating system.

Gail-Joon Ahn is leading work on a system that veers from using common text passwords to the use of patterns and images. Users select picture images to create unique three-part patterns as passwords for access to mobile telephones, e-tablets and Internet profiles. The patterns can consist of a tap, a circle or drawing a line on an image. Gail-Joon Ahn picture password protection Download Full Image

Later this month, Ahn’s research team will give a presentation on the work, titled “On the Security of Picture Gesture Authentication,” at the USENIX Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., a prominent gathering of leading computer security experts. The symposium is organized by USENIX, the Advanced Computing Systems Association.

Ahn is a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He is also founder and chief technology officer of GFS Technology Inc., an ASU-incubated company.

He has been researching the vulnerability of the Windows 8 password-protection system with a team that includes computer science doctoral student Ziming Zhao and computer science master’s degree student Jeong-Jin Seo, along with Hongxin Hu, an ASU graduate and now an assistant professor of computer and information sciences at Delaware State University.

Ahn says the system will provide significantly more security to protect Windows users from hackers who may use automated scripts to crack passwords.

The team began by identifying common traits in an experiment group’s selection of password patterns. They gathered data from a group of participants using Amazon.com, as well as from students who used the Windows 8 security platform to log into class work. The researchers found the users tended to pick predictable patterns to create passwords.

The patterns showed a common trend in concentrating patterns around an image’s “points of interest,” such as faces, eyeglasses or brightly colored objects. Ahn’s team developed algorithms that identified possible points of interest in images users created for password patterns.

“Based on the user habits and patterns, we created a ranked pattern dictionary,” he explains. With that finding, Ahn’s team was able to figure out the password patterns used by the experiment group – showing there was more work to be done to better protect the Windows 8 system.

The team created password-strength meters similar to those commonly used to test the effectiveness of common text passwords in remaining secure. By predetermining the strength of a pattern, users can guard against hacking by selecting unusual patterns that do not utilize obvious points of interest.

Ahn has been granted a provisional U.S. patent securing the results of his research while he and his team organize documentation and data for an application to have the system approved for a permanent patent.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU named one of nation's best universities for undergraduate education

August 7, 2013

Arizona State University is one of the nation's best institutions for undergraduate education, according to The Princeton Review. The education services company features the school in the new 2014 edition of its annual college guide, "The Best 378 Colleges.”

Only about 15 percent of America’s 2,500 four-year colleges and only four colleges outside the U.S. are profiled in the book, which is The Princeton Review's flagship college guide. Arizona State University is one of the nation's best institutions for undergradu Download Full Image

“Arizona State University offers outstanding academics, which is the primary criteria for our choice of schools for the book,” said Robert Franek, Princeton Review's senior vice president and publisher and author of "The Best 378 Colleges."

“We base our selections primarily on data we obtain in our annual institutional data surveys. We also take in to account input we get from our staff, our 35-member National College Counselor Advisory Board, our personal visits to schools and the wide range of feedback we get from our surveys of students attending these schools. It is their opinions that college applicants often value the most, particularly on (or in the absence of) campus visits.”

In its profile of ASU, The Princeton Review praises the university for its outstanding academics, the quality of life provided to its students and its vast internship opportunities.

Students say ASU’s “greatest strength is the great depth of its faculty and wealth of opportunities offered to students. ASU is home to engaging professors that are genuinely concerned with the success of their students.”

The strength of ASU’s faculty is appealing to other professors, as well. Over the past two years running, the university has hired more than 100 new faculty members, selected from among the best young scholars around the world.

Many students also say they chose ASU because it “offers a huge range of classes and majors at a reasonable cost” and provides “the best of both worlds: a large research university and an honors program tailored for individual needs.”

Barrett, The Honors College at ASU is a selective, residential college that recruits academically outstanding undergraduates across the nation, and has more National Merit Scholars than MIT, Duke, Brown, Stanford or the University of California-Berkeley.

This latest recognition by The Princeton Review is among several ASU has earned as one of the nation's, and the world's, top universities. The Center for World University Rankings ranks ASU 73rd in the world and 46th in the U.S., and the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranks ASU 79th in the world and 46th in the U.S.

U.S. News & World Report also ranks ASU in the top tier of national universities: 139th among more than 1,500 four-year colleges and universities.

The Princeton Review is a Massachusetts-based education services company known for its test-prep courses, tutoring, books and other student resources. This year marks the 22nd edition of the Best Colleges guide.

Sharon Keeler