Cracking an Android device's Pattern Lock within 5 attempts

January 24, 2017 //By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Security experts have reveled that the popular Pattern Lock system used to secure millions of Android phones can be cracked within just five attempts, and more complicated patterns are the easiest to crack.

Used by around 40 per cent of Android device owners, Pattern Lock is a security measure that protects devices, such as mobile phones or tablets, and is preferred by many to PIN codes or text passwords.

In order to access a device's functions and content, users must first draw a pattern on an on-screen grid of dots. If this matches the pattern set by the owner then the device can be used. However, users only have five attempts to get the pattern right before the device becomes locked.

New research from Lancaster University, Northwest University in China, and the University of Bath, which received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), shows for the first time that attackers can crack Pattern Lock reliably within five attempts by using video and computer vision algorithm software.

By covertly videoing the owner drawing their Pattern Lock shape to unlock their device, while enjoying a coffee in a busy café for example, the attacker, who is pretending to play with their phone, can then use software to quickly track the owner's fingertip movements relative to the position of the device. Within seconds the algorithm produces a small number of candidate patterns to access the Android phone or tablet.

The attack works even without the video footage being able to see any of the on-screen content, and regardless of the size of the screen. Results are accurate on video recorded on a mobile phone from up to two and a half metres away – and so attacks are more covert than shoulder-surfing. It also works reliably with footage recorded on a digital SLR camera at distances up to nine metres away.

Researchers evaluated the attack using 120 unique patterns collected from independent users. They were able to crack more than 95 per cent of patterns within five attempts.