graphical password or graphical user authentication (GUA)

A graphical password is an authentication system that works by having the user select from images, in a specific order, presented in a graphical user interface (GUI).

A graphical password is an authentication system that works by having the user select from images, in a specific order, presented in a graphical user interface (GUI). For this reason, the graphical-password approach is sometimes called graphical user authentication (GUA).

A graphical password is easier than a text-based password for most people to remember. Suppose an 8-character password is necessary to gain entry into a particular computer network. Instead of w8KiJ72c, for example, a user might select images of the earth (from among a screen full of real and fictitious planets), the country of France (from a map of the world), the city of Nice (from a map of France), a white stucco house with arched doorways and red tiles on the roof, a green plastic cooler with a white lid, a package of Gouda cheese, a bottle of grape juice, and a pink paper cup with little green stars around its upper edge and three red bands around the middle.

Graphical passwords may offer better security than text-based passwords because many people, in an attempt to memorize text-based passwords, use plain words (rather than the recommended jumble of characters). A dictionary search can often hit on a password and allow a hacker to gain entry into a system in seconds. But if a series of selectable images is used on successive screen pages, and if there are many images on each page, a hacker must try every possible combination at random. If there are 100 images on each of the 8 pages in an 8-image password, there are 1008, or 10 quadrillion (10,000,000,000,000,000), possible combinations that could form the graphical password! If the system has a built-in delay of only 0.1 second following the selection of each image until the presentation of the next page, it would take (on average) millions of years to break into the system by hitting it with random image sequences.

This was first published in June 2007

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