NewsOctober 31, 2017 @ 10:10 AM

Photo-Based Pixie 2FA System Takes Authentication to a New Dimension

Researchers at Florida International University and Bloomberg have generated a new two-factor authentication (2FA) system that depends on an individual taking a picture of a personal object. Their findings were published recently in a paper titled, “Camera-Based Two-Factor Authentication Through Mobile and Wearable Devices.”

The system, known as Pixie, could offer a more convenient and potentially secure alternative to traditional authentication processes, such as submitting SMS verification codes or using hardware-based security keys. Initial tests have shown that Pixie is resilient and popular with users. IT managers should take note of these developments and consider how the innovation could represent a significant step toward the broader acceptance of stronger authentication methods.

How Does Pixie 2FA Work?

Pixie is the latest development in 2FA, which experts recognize provides a much-improved form of account login than traditional, single-factor authentication methods, such as a password. Users must use a second input to assure the system that they are allowed to access a service.

As a form of authentication, Pixie gives individuals the opportunity to select an object as their key, according to Bleeping Computer. Users take a photo of their selected object when they set up Pixie protection. Each time individuals log in to their accounts, they are asked to take another picture of the same object. This shot is compared to the initial reference photo.

Only the user is aware of the object they have selected. Most significantly, errant actors cannot intercept and hijack the login system, which sometimes happens with SMS verification codes. Users can add further security by taking photos from obscure angles or only photographing a select element of their chosen object.

Other Benefits of Pixie

Pixie proved reasonably resilient to attacks during research, The Register reported. The false accept rate, which is the measure of likelihood that a security system will incorrectly accept unauthorized access, was less than 0.09 percent. This rate was recorded in a brute-force attack that included more than 14 million authentication attempts.

The Register also noted that Pixie was well-received by users. Half of the 42 people who tested the system in the study said they favored Pixie over password-based authentication, which currently dominates as the most popular 2FA system. Not to mention, the research found Pixie was more effective than text-based passwords in terms of memorability, speed and user preference.

The system also has another advantage in that authentication does not rely on remote servers and image recognition is sorted via the Pixie app locally.

The Future of Authentication

Such developments will be welcome news to experts who have long warned that the potential of 2FA will remain largely untapped until the public demands this form of authentication becomes standard in everyday computing. Evidence of this reticence comes from several reports, including one that quoted a Dropbox official who suggested less that 1 percent of its customers used the company’s 2FA option.

Low adoption rates are often blamed on limited public awareness and the reluctance of service providers to include security options that might slow the login process. Security concerns are another factor, especially given the ability of some threat actors to break SMS authentication by intercepting text messages containing the one-time passwords often used in 2FA methods.

While other potential techniques such as sensor-based authentication have yet to have a big impact due to hardware limitations, Pixie provides a potential user-friendly route to wide-scale 2FA acceptance.

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Mark Samuels

Tech Journalist

Mark Samuels is an experienced business technology journalist with an outstanding track record in research. He specializes in the role of chief information officers (CIOs) and is adept at helping executives understand the business benefits of complex technologies. Key areas of interest include innovation, digital transformation, cloud computing, mobility, information security, ecommerce and big data. Mark has written articles for national newspapers, including The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times. He has also produced features and columns for a range of IT trade publications, such as Computer Weekly, ZDNet, Tech Republic, IT Pro, Channel Pro, CBR and The Register.