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Colorful Passphrases

Since the development of my passphrase and password generator, I started working toward improving the other online generators out there on the web. I created a Google Spreadsheet to work toward that goal, by doing reasonable audits to "rank" each generator, and see how they stacked up against the rest. Then, I started submitting patches in hopes of making things better.

One passphrase generator that was brought to my attention was Pass Plum. Pass Plum supplies an example word list to use for generating your passphrases, if you choose to install the software on your own server. Unfortunately, the list is only 140 words in size, so if you choose to use that for your word list, then you only get about 7.13-bits of entropy per word. Sticking to the default configuration 4 words given to the user, that's a scant 28-bits of security on your passphrase, which is trivially reversed. I submitted a pull request to extend it to 4,096 words, providing exactly 13-bits of entropy per word, or about 52-bits of entropy for a 4-word passphrase- a significant improvement.

I noticed, however, that the default list was nothing but color names, and that got me thinking- what if not only the generator provided color names for passphrases, but also colored the word that color name? Basically, a sort of false visual synesthesia. What I want to know is this, is it easier to remember passphrases when you can associate each word with a visual color?

So, over the past several nights, and during weekends, I've been putting this together. So, here is is- colorful passphrases.

Collage of 4 separate screenshots of what the color passphrase generator looks like.

Head over to my site to check it out. If a color is too light (its luma value is very high), then the word is outlined with CSS. Every word is bold, to make the word even more visible on the default white background.

As I mentioned, the idea is simple: people struggle remembering random meaningless strings of characters for passwords, so passphrases are a way to make a random series of words easier to recall. After all, it should be easier to remember "gnu hush gut modem scamp giddy" than it is to remember "$5hKXuE[\NK". It's certainly easier to type on mobile devices, and embedded devices without keyboards, like smart TVs and video game consoles.

But, even then, there is nothing that is really tying "gnu hush gut modem scamp giddy" together, so you force yourself in some sort of mnemonic to recall it. Visually stimulated color passphrases have the benefit of not only using a mnemonic to recall the phrase, but an order of colors as well. For example, you might not recall "RedRobin Pumpkin Revolver DeepPuce Lucky Crail TealDeer", but you may remember its color order of roughly "red orange black purple gold brown teal". "A RedRobin is red. A pumpkin is orange. A revolver (gun) is black. DeepPuce is a purple. Lucky coins are gold. Crail, Soctand has brown dirt. TealDeer are teal."

However, it also comes with a set of problems. First, what happens if you actually have visual synesthesia? Will seeing these colors conflict with your mental image of what the color should be for that word? Second, many of the words are very obscure, such as "Crail" or "Tussock" or "Tuatara" (as all seen in the previous screenshot collage). Finally, what happens when you have a color passphrase where two similar colors are adjacent to each other? Something like "Veronica Affair Pipi DeepOak Atoll BarnRed RedOxide"? Both "BarnRed" and "RedOxide" are a deep reddish color. Will it be more difficult to recall which comes first?

A screenshot showing a color collision between "BarnRed" and "RexOxide"

As someone who is interested in password research, I wanted to see what sort of memory potential visually colorful passphrases could have. As far as I know, this has never been investigated before (at least I could find any research done in this area, and I can't find any passphrase generators doing it). This post from Wired investigates alternatives to text entry for password support, such as using color wheels, but doesn't say anything about visual text. Here is a browser extension that colors password form fields on websites, with the SHA-1 hash of your password as you type it. You know if it's correct, by recognizing if the pattern is the same it always is when logging in.

Long story short, I think I'm wading into unknown territory here. If you find this useful, or even if you don't, I would be very interested in your feedback.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Carlos Melero | September 16, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi! I'm the author of UnicornPass, thank you for mentioning my extension!

    Time to update my local copy of your generator 😛 I wonder if it will help me remember new passwords

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