Could Emojis Offer Increased PIN Security?

iOS Emoji Keyboard. Photo: Josh Valcarcel/WIRED
iOS Emoji Keyboard. Photo: Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

A company has suggested that using emojis instead of the usual four digit PIN would increase PIN security by nearly 500%.

Intelligent Environments is the startup company behind the new claims and it says that there are other benefits to using emojis over numbers in PIN codes too. The company has quoted a memory expert named Tony Buzan who says that emoji passcodes would draw on the ability of humans to remember pictures, which is “anchored in our evolutionary history”. Buzan, the inventor of the Mind Map, claims that we remember more information when it is in the form of pictures.

Managing director of Intelligent Environments David Webber has said that the company had input from millennials when the new technology was developed. The research conducted by the company says that 64% of millennials communicate regularly using only emoji and so it was decided that Intelligent Environments should try to reinvent the passcode by developing the first ever “emoji security technology”.

Even though it sounds unlikely, an emoji passcode would actually be more secure than a traditional four digit PIN code. A four digit code offers just 10,000 variations, but many banks and companies don’t allow easy to guess combinations such as 9999 or 1234, so the actual number of usable combinations is even lower. Cashpoints retain debit cards if the PIN number is entered incorrectly too many times as it is relatively easy to guess the correct PIN code for a card given an unlimited amount of tries.

An emoji passcode would offer up to 3.8 million different possible passcodes, a huge number more than the 10,000 available with numbers only. This is calculated with 44 (the number of possible emoji) to the power of four (the number of places for the emoji to go). Intelligent Environments suggest that an emoji passcode will be 480 times more secure than one containing only numbers, as long as the same emoji or digit is not used twice in the same sequence.

It has been suggested that while emoji offer a much better alternative to digit-only PINs, PIN codes are a very weak form of authentication and so there is a huge number of alternative systems that prove to be more secure. For example, passwords containing letters are much more secure than emoji passcodes- a password containing eight characters and only lower case letters allows for 208 billion combinations, which makes it 55,000 times more secure than an emoji passcode. Despite this, eight character lowercase passcodes are rejected by many banks and financial sites for not being secure enough. A ten character passcode that contains upper and lower case letters along with numbers and special characters would offer 5 quintillion combinations (75 to the power of 10).

Although emoji passcodes are not as secure as they may seem, the Intelligent Environment technology prevents hackers or scammers from working out a PIN code based on a personal date that is easily remembered such as a birthday or anniversary date. The company is currently in discussion with banks who may look to adopt the technology and make it available to customers within the next 12 months.

Research conducted in the UK of 1,337 adults found that almost 33% have forgotten their PIN number and one in four use the same PIN number for all of their cards. However, experts are warning of the possible confusion that will face users as they try to remember their emoji PIN. Professor Mike Jackson, Birmingham University cyber security expert has said that because there is more than one option that means the same when using emojis, people may forget which option they have chosen. In addition, the technology couldn’t be used at cash points or in shops as the hardware isn’t available, and so customers would still need to use a traditional four digit PIN code as well. This would mean that they would need to remember more than one code so that they could access their accounts online and in person, which would lead to even more confusion.

The Unicode Consortium, the organisation which creates standards for emoji and characters across all platforms, has published a set of 38 new emoji which will be added to the set of emoji already available next year. This may create new problems if the emoji PIN technology is to be put to use before the additions.

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