Apple introduces a new Image-Based Authentication System for Unlocking Macs and iDevices
On February 7, 2013, the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple titled "Image-Based Authentication." The inventor noted on the patent application is Apple's Quality Assurance Manager for Apple TV, Ethan Lowry. Apple's invention generally relates to authenticating a user of a computing device by displaying one or more images to the user and receiving input that identifies object(s) depicted in the one or more images. Apple currently has a number of next generation authentication systems in the wings. One similar to today's invention was published in September 2012 regarding Facial Recognition. A second involves a two-step slide-to-unlock process and a third that is most promising involves a straight forward fingerprint scanning process associated with today's slide-to-unlock process. Today's invention while interesting, is a little complicated in contrast to Apple's one step fingerprint scanner. Yet until Apple actually introduces their next generation authentication system, we can't rule out any of their future approaches.
Apple's Patent Background
Handheld devices, such as tablet computers, laptops, and smart phones, have become ubiquitous. Users sometimes misplace their handheld devices or inadvertently leave them in public places. Such misplaced devices are easy prey for thieves. To dissuade thieves from stealing handheld devices (or people from accessing their friends' devices), many software manufacturers require a user to provide input that "unlocks" the handheld device. Such input may be a passcode of four or more characters. Without the required input, the user is not able to access data (e.g., work-related data, personal photos, etc.) stored on the handheld device or any services (e.g., a phone service) provided by the handheld device.
However, this approach for authenticating a user can be easily compromised. For example, a thief sitting on a bus may notice the four characters that an unsuspecting person entered on the person's smart phone. As another example, a thief may pick up a tablet computer in a public place and discover, based on finger prints on the display of the tablet computer, which characters were recently selected by the owner of the tablet computer. As another example, a person sees a friend enter a password into the friend's laptop. Later, the person accesses the laptop and views all the web pages that the friend has visited in the last day.
Apple's Proposed Image-Based Authentication System
Apple's patent generally relates to techniques regarding authenticating a user and providing them access to a computing devices such as an iPhone. In one embodiment, the process of authenticating involves (1) selecting at least one image that depicts one or more objects with which the user should be familiar, where the image is stored persistently on the computing device, and (2) displaying the image. An object may be a person's face, for example. Each image displayed by the computing device is associated with data that identifies (or is at least associated with) an object depicted in the image. The computing device then accepts input from the user. If the user input matches data that is associated with the object (e.g., where the input accurately identifies the object), then the user is allowed access to the computing device.
In a related technique, the computing device displays a series of two or more images. If the user properly identifies the object depicted in each displayed image, then the user is granted access to the computing device.
About Apple's Patent Figures: FIG. 1 is a flow diagram that depicts a process for authenticating a user to a computing device; FIG. 2 is a block diagram that depicts a set of names that are displayed concurrently with an image on a computing device; and FIG. 3 is a flow diagram that depicts a process for using different types of authentication.
Apple's patent FIG. 1 is a flow diagram that depicts a process for authenticating a user to a computing device that could be an iPhone, iPod touch, MacBook or iPad. After hitting the "home" button on a handheld device, the proposed authentication system begins.
In Step Two (# 120 on FIG.1), an authenticating process executing on the computing device selects an image to display. The image depicts at least one object. The image is stored on the computing device at the time the first input is received. The object may be of any type, such as, for example, a person's face, an uncommon animal or insect, or a place of which only the user (or people in the user's circle of friends) might know. Also, the image may be stored in one of many types of formats.
In Step Three (# 130 on FIG. 1), the computing device receives second input from the user. The second input may be based on text input or voice input. For example, after displaying an image that depicts a face of the user's sister Jane, the user may speak aloud, "Jane."
As another example, the user may type "Jane" on a physical keyboard of the computing device or on a graphical keyboard that is displayed on a touch screen of the computing device. Alternatively, step 120 might also include displaying, concurrently with the image or immediately after ceasing to display the image, a set of names. Then, as part of step 130, the user selects one of the displayed names that the user believes identifies the object.
In Step Four (# 140 on FIG. 1), the authenticating process compares input data (associated with the second input) with authentication data that is associated with the object depicted in the image.
In Step Five (# 150 of FIG. 1), the authenticating process grants the user access to the computing device.
Setting up the Authentication system will involve using iPhoto on your device(s) or a version of it on iCloud.
Random Points about the System
Although the user could chose to set up the authentication system for easy access by using only one image to identify, users who want a higher level of security will use a "multiple rounds authentication" process using multiple images. Apple states that each image is displayed, the user will have to provide the proper input that identifies (or describes) an object depicted in the image. If the user provides the correct input for each displayed image, then the user is granted access to the computing device.
As part of a single round authentication process, an authenticating process selects an image of the Eiffel Tower and prompts the user to enter a description of the Eiffel Tower that the user provided previously (e.g., using a different computing device), such as "The Big Stick." While Eiffel Tower is a global icon, not many people have referred to it as "The Big Stick." Therefore, an unauthorized person that accesses the computing device and sees the Eiffel Tower as part of the authentication process will most likely not know that "The Big Stick" is the answer.
A multiple round process may require other types of data, such as entering a four-digit PIN, a password, a typed (or spoken) name of an object depicted in a displayed image, or a selected name from a set of names that are displayed in association with a displayed image. Another data type may include location based information stored in a photo.
Apple patent application was filed in Q3 2011 under serial number 195765 by inventor Ethan Lowry, Quality Assurance Manager for Apple TV.
A Word about Today's Continuation Patents
Over and above today's main patent application described above, the US Patent and Trademark Office did in fact publish a series of twelve older continuation patents today dating back to between 2006 and 2012. The continuation patents listed below are specifically referenced as such under the section titled "Cross-Reference to Related Applications." Generally speaking, this type of patent application contains modifications that Apple's legal team have made to the original patent claims in an effort to have the US Patent Office finally approve their invention. In general continuation patents don't represent any new developments from the original patent filing. Some websites mistakenly report on continuation patents as if they were new Apple filings to which they are not. Here are the older continuation patents that were published today by the US Patent Office:
01. 2009 Patent Titled "Multi-Context Graphics Processing"
02. 2012 from 2006 Patent Titled "Access Category Enforcement in Wireless Local Area Networks." Note: This is a patent that Apple acquired. One of the inventors by the name of Osama Aboul-Magd is noted on the net as being from Huawei Technologies.
03. 2008 Patent Titled "Quality of Service Control in Multiple Hop Wireless Communication Environments"
04. 2012 from 2007 Patent Titled "Modulation Division Multiple Access." This is an acquired patent from Canada's Nortel.
05. 2010 Patent Titled "MAC Packet Data Unit Construction for Wireless System." This is an acquired patent from Canada's Nortel.
06. 2007 Patent Titled "Signal Transmitter Linearization."
07. 2008 Patent Titled "Secure Provisioning of a Portable Device using a Representation of a Key"
08. 2011 Patent Titled "Adhesive Stack with a Central Shear Layer"
09. 2010 Patent Titled "Wireless Interference Mitigation"
10. 2010 Patent Titled "Processing Vectors using Wrapping Minima and Maxima Instructions in a Macroscalar Architecture'
11. 2006 Patent Titled "Execution Difference Identification Tool"
12. 2009 Patent Titled "Generating Test Benches for Pre-Silicon Validation of Retimed Complex IC Designs against a Reference Design"
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