A new look for passwords

THE Government's surveillance centre, GCHQ, is evaluating a new computer password system, which uses faces rather than letters, for top- security work. The system has already been adopted by a City merchant bank, which says it has ended the problem of computer users forgetting their passwords.

The system, developed by Visage, a Welsh private company, relies on humans' innate ability to recognise familiar faces within a fraction of a second. Yet as Hugh Davies, its chairman, points out: "You can't describe in words what is different about one face from another. But you can learn to recognise a previously unknown face in a few minutes, and that will stick for years."

The company has just been awarded British patents, and is applying for patents internationally. It is also talking to large software companies, including Novell and IBM, who are interested in incorporating the system into their products.

But Mr Davies is bitter that British venture capital companies have not backed the project, which has been kept going by a combination of awards from the Welsh Office and money from a wealthy individual, who has made repeated investments in return for 24 per cent of the equity.

"I think the British venture capital industry is one of those mythical creatures, like the Federation of Greek Islands' Master Plumbers," Mr Davies says.

Visage works by replacing the strings of letters and numbers used in modern, high-security passwords to defeat hackers with thumbnail pictures of faces. The average computer user has to hold six strings such as "orI4d3" in mind. But these are easily forgotten because the brain is not adapted to remembering them.

However, the brain is excellent at remembering human faces. To use the Visage system, the user first chooses a set of faces - typically three - from a given range of about 200 unknown individuals, and practises spotting them in a grid with six others. After five minutes' practice, almost anyone can "fix" their chosen faces.

In the working system, the faces are offered for less than a second in random positions in a grid on a computer screen, and the user must key in their positions. Only the intended user will spot the faces. Extra security can be generated by enlarging the grid and repeating this phase two or three times.

Security levels are kept high by not using famous faces or those of the user's family. GCHQ's tests of the system have all been positive, says Mr Davies. "We have been told by them that it is the single biggest advance in security since the invention of the password itself." The Home Office is understood to be interested in the system as an access control system.

At Charterhouse merchant bank, the system has been used for some time. "We never get any calls with people forgetting their passwords," says Neil Hare-Brown, the security manager. "Once they've learned this, you never hear from them again."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - Financial Services - OTE £65,000

£15000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Loan Underwriter

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future