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


Carbon under pressure exhibits some interesting traits

August 7, 2013

High pressures and temperatures cause materials to exhibit unusual properties, some of which can be special. Understanding such new properties is important for developing new materials for desired industrial uses and also for understanding the interior of Earth, where everything is hot and squeezed.

A paper in Nature Geoscience highlights a new technique in which small amounts of a sample can be studied while being hot and squeezed within an electron microscope. Use of such a microscopy method permits determination of details down to the scale of a few atoms, including the detection of unexpected atom types or atoms in unexpected places, as within a mineral. carbon Download Full Image

Jun Wu and Peter Buseck, the paper’s authors, both at Arizona State University, conducted the research on campus at the J.M. Cowley Center for High Resolution Electron Microscopy of the LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The researchers used tiny containers of carbon, less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair and therefore small enough to fit within high-resolution electron microscopes, to enclose materials similar to those deep within Earth. They then used the electron beam to shrink and thereby squeeze these minuscule capsules. When combined with heating of the samples, new features were observed in the enclosed materials.

“Under such high pressures and temperatures, the materials inside the capsules developed faults that concentrated carbon along them,” explains Buseck, Regents' Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The Nature Geoscience paper describes the use of this new method to address the important problem of how and where carbon is located within Earth’s interior. Carbon is an essential building block for all forms of life and it also has important effects on climate and climate change through greenhouses gases such as carbon dioxide and carbon tetrahydride, also known as natural gas, or methane.

The largest single reservoir for carbon is within Earth’s interior. However, the known hosts for this carbon are believed to be insufficient to explain the amounts present.

Because Earth’s interior (as well as the interiors of other planets) contains vast amounts of materials like those used in the experiments, the scientists conclude that such faults, and the carbon they concentrate, provide a solution to the problem of explaining where large amounts of carbon reside in Earth’s interior.

Wu and Buseck’s experiments also demonstrate a new way of studying materials at high pressure and temperature within an electron microscope, thereby significantly extending the tools available to scientists for examining materials under extreme conditions.

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration