Our smartphones carry a lot of personal information. All of your text messages, emails, notes, apps, app data, music, pictures, and so much more are all on there. While it’s a very great convenience to have all of these on your phone, it’s also a major security risk if all of this data is easily accessible. The best way to prevent simple unauthorized access is by setting some sort of lock on your phone.
Two popular choices, especially on Android phones, are passwords and pattern locks. However, which one is the most secure to use? In order to answer that, we’ll have to use our brains and some math.
Passwords are a bit harder to use than pattern locks because you actually have to type out your password. They are, however, still plenty easier than some desktop authentication methods available, such as multifactor authentication. But just how safe are they? In order to figure out how safe a method is, you’ll have to look at the number of possibilities.
No method is completely safe if an unauthorized user knows your password or pattern, but if they don’t know, they’ll have to keep guessing. If there are more possibilities, the person will have to make more guesses, which makes it safer and more secure.
For our experiment, we’ll compare 5-character passwords with 5-point patterns. Passwords can contain any character on your keyboard, including a-z, A-Z, 0-9, and all special characters, such as !, @, #, $, and so on. In total, that’s about 90 different possibilities with a US English keyboard. Each character can use all possible entries, so each character can be any of those 90 possibilities. In mathematical permutations, we have to multiply them together.
So for a 90 character password, 90*90*90*90*90=5,904,900,000. That’s almost 6 million different passwords you can make if it’s only 5 characters long! No one will manually try to type in 6 million different passwords in order to guess the right one. Of course, for each additional character in your password, you multiple that number by 90. So upgrading to just a 6 character password gives you 531,441,000,000 possibilities. That’s a lot.
Pattern locks, however, are quite different. Although they look quite confusing and complex, they’re actually not. In order to explain why not, we’ll need to look at the maximum number of permutations. When you first start with your pattern, you have nine points to choose from. This will be our first factor. Let’s take the choice which gives us the most amount of options: the middle point. From here, you can pick any of the eight others as your second point. This will be our second factor. Whatever point you picked will give you the number of available neighboring points. A corner point leaves only two options, while a side point gives you four — the two corners and the adjacent side points.
But lets ignore the fact that you may (or may not) have to pick a neighboring point. If you can go to whichever point you’d like next, you’ll only have seven available options left as you can’t pick a point twice — the reason why each factor’s value is declining. This is our third factor.
The fourth and fifth factors would, ideally, be six and five. Therefore, under ideal conditions, the maximum amount of permutations you can get with a 5-point pattern is 9*8*7*6*5=15,120. Even if you went ahead and used a 6-point pattern, you’d only get a total of 60,480 permutations. Compared to what passwords offer, that’s absolutely nothing.
Admittedly, no one with a reasonable mind will want to manually try out 15,120 different possibilities, but the ratio of permutations of a 5-character password compared to a 5-point pattern is almost 390,536:1. Insane.
Clearly, the obvious choice for staying secure is to use a password instead of the pattern lock.
While the pattern lock may be fun to use, there’s plenty of data on your phone which you don’t want others to have. Now that I’ve done the math myself, I’ll be sure to use a password from now on, as it’s a whopping 390,536 times more secure when comparing 5-character passwords to 5-point patterns, and that number increases when you compare 6 vs. 6, 7 vs. 7, and so on. Additionally, using the pattern lock places some pretty unique smears onto your phone, which other people can look at to narrow down the possible choices for your pattern. Password users are less susceptible to this because it gets blurred with other typing activities such as texting.
Don’t feel too safe however by using the password method. You’ll still want to use a good password in order to stay safe, and only then can you truly use the mathematical advantage over pattern locks. Check out these articles for creating good passwords you can still remember, creating a seriously hard password to break, testing your password for strength, and managing your passwords on your Android device.
Which locking mechanism do you use on your Android device? Does your password’s strength stack up? Let us know in the comments but please don’t share your passwords.
Image Credit: Internet background with binary code via Shutterstock
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