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Why Using Pattern Locks to Protect Your Smartphone Isn’t Entirely Safe

When it comes to smartphone security, one of the first things that we recommend is to switch on the screen lock feature. A surprisingly large number of people are still using their phones without any kind of screen lock enabled, or low/medium-security locks such as pattern locks. This is a major security loophole that leaves their devices and data open to thieves. In case of loss or theft of such devices, it’s very simple for a malicious party to access the phone and view or steal any data.

The different options available for locking the screen of a device are as follows. All major smartphone manufacturers today provide these features.

  • Password – High security
  • PIN – Medium to high security
  • Fingerprint recognition – Medium to high security
  • Pattern – Medium security
  • Face and voice – Low security
  • Face unlock – Low security

A majority of people who do use the screen lock feature opt for the PATTERN functionality. This method of unlocking devices is fun, interactive and anyone who sets it up thinks it is pretty unique as well. However, the truth is that the pattern chosen by many people may not be that unique after all; therefore, using pattern locks to protect your smartphone isn’t necessarily the safest method.

It has been discovered that the traces and patterns that we form for unlocking our phones are usually pretty easy to guess. At DEF CON 23 in Las Vegas, a Norwegian University of Science and Technology investigator Marte Løge showcased a study about these locking patterns and how little security they provide. She studied around 4,000 user patterns to arrive at her conclusions (watch her presentation here).

Notable Findings of Pattern Locking
  1. In the 3×3 grid for setting the pattern, a maximum of 9 point traces can be used. But most people use much less.
  2. A majority of people only use four swipes for setting their pattern and this limits the total possible combinations to 1624.
  3. Around 44% of people start their patterns in the top-left corner. Moreover, 77% of patterns start in any one of the four corners.
  4. The pattern is also likely to go from left to right and from top to bottom. All these factors further reduce the number of possible combinations and this makes it easier for attackers to guess the potential patterns.

Some of the most common patterns that were seen to be used are as follows. So if you are using any of these as your screen lock patterns, it is highly recommended that you change it as soon as possible.

Furthermore, we also recommend that you use the PASSWORD feature to unlock your smartphone, rather than using pattern locks. It goes without saying that the password you choose should be a strong one as well. It should consist of at least eight characters; have at least one number, at least one CAPITAL alphabet, and at least one special character. This will make your smartphone close to impossible to unlock – even if someone does get their hands on it.


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