A pattern lock may not be protecting your Android phone

The new study shows that using a pattern instead of typing in a pin or password doesn’t make your phone more secure


A pattern lock doesn’t involve numbers or letters which makes it more convenient than typing a password or pin to unlock the phone.  Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
A pattern lock doesn’t involve numbers or letters which makes it more convenient than typing a password or pin to unlock the phone. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

A study by researchers from Lancaster University, University of Bath And Northwest University in China shows that a pattern locks on smartphones can be cracked in five attempts, using video and computer vision algorithm software. Used by about 40% of Android users, pattern lock is a popular screen unlock tool which allows user to unlock their touchscreen based devices such as smartphone or tablet by drawing a specific pattern using the nine dots divided into a 3x3 grid without lifting the finger. A pattern lock doesn’t involve numbers or letters which makes it more convenient than typing a password or pin to unlock the phone.

Busting the myth

The researchers collected 120 unique patterns from a group of random users who used pattern lock and managed to crack over 95% of these patterns in only five attempts.

They secretly video recorded the 120 participants when they were drawing their Pattern Lock shape to unlock their smartphone in a public place. The finger print algorithm was then used to instantly track the user’s fingertip movements relative to the position of the device in the recorded video.In a few seconds the algorithm came up with possible patterns that could unlock the phone.

The results are found to be more accurate if the video was recorded from a distance of two and a half metres from the participants’ smartphone.

The study also refutes the notion that using a complex pattern with more complicated shape is more secure. Researchers were able to crack more (87.5%) of median complex patterns than simple patterns (60%) during the first attempt and believe that using a shorter and simple pattern is better than a complex one.

Tips for users

Drawing a pattern is a lot more convenient than feeding a four digit pin or a six digit password every time one wants to unlock the phone. Buying a smartphone with a finger print sensor can save the whole trouble without giving away your pattern or password. Every finger print is unique which is what makes it the safest screen lock mechanism.

In case your existing phone doesn’t have a finger print sensor and you want to stick to the pattern, it is better to cover your finger with the other hand. Changing the brightness levels drastically can make it difficult for the camera to get the focus right.

Smart Unlock is another mechanism that allows users to unlock their smartphone in many unique ways. One can unlock the screen by using a smart band or smart watch connected to it via Bluetooth. The other option in this is the location mode which automatically unlocks the phone when a user enters a specified location. The third option within Smart Unlock allows user to unlock their phone using their face.

A few phone makers such as LG uses gesture based screen lock tool called Knock code which uses knocking on select portions of the screen as a combination to unlock it.

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