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Petting Your Password

My grad school funding at present is connected to an interdisciplinary program focused on security research. That may sound far removed from the direction I’m supposed to be taking developing the ideas of playful technology and all that. But hold on. Let me throw some knowledge at you.

Security is essential. Or rather, being able to trust our fancypants computer systems is essential. Security also tends to be seen at odds with usability. Certain design principles can alleviate much of that tension. That said, certain security interactions remain a pain and inspire frustration at best and outright circumvention at worst. The intent of my funding is to look at security from a very broad perspective — including Human Computer Interaction. My advisor and I are exploring how we might use playful interactions to offset certain necessary usability costs in security systems — a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down (and, yes, that’s stuck in your head for the rest of the day now).

Some security-related interactions (particularly authentication) are just no fun. Passwords expire at seemingly inopportune moments. They’re hard to remember, and there’s so many to remember. Rules for creating them cause you to grumble @&#%! (hey, that’s a good password right there). A notion we discussed at length is the nature of passwords and security as part of an ecosystem. That is, that security is something you tend like a garden. Katherine even drew the parallel of viewing passwords as having a lifecycle towards asking how a compost heap of old passwords might help fertilize a new crop of digital certificates.

All this lead me to certain ideas (that we’re not at present pursuing) about creating a kind of tangibility to passwords or security tokens or simply security itself. These things in and of themselves are quite ethereal and very unreal, though the implications of compromised security are very real. There’s an inherent misalignment in how humans view and interact with security. How might we address this?

It occurs to me that we have passwords that are tangible in some sense already. Two-factor authentication systems often make use of pocket-size hardware tokens. It also occurs to me that the form factor and smarts in these tokens is not that far removed from the likes of Tamagotchi digital pets. So, what if all the techno mumbo jumbo of your digital security profile was crafted into the character of a digital pet? There’s something hardwired into us that enjoys the act of nurturing. Tamagotchi demonstrate just how compelling that interest to nurture can be — even if virtual. Actions like walking, feeding, and taking to the veterinarian your digital pet could map to updating your passwords, reviewing privacy settings, responding to policy changes, and maybe even acting socially/communally in the digital equivalent of a dog park. Heck — old passwords and credentials could even be subject to a pooper scooper.

This is the sort of application of playful technologies I have in mind. And, now, I get to work on such things fulltime. My actual, current research project is quite a bit broader in scope; we’re yet working to flesh out the concepts. More on that in the months to come.


(Image: SecurID by Purple Slog under Creative Commons license)
(Image: Tamagotchi by quimby under Creative Commons license)

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Reader Comments (1)

I love this concept. It makes the creative person inside me happy, along with the embedded software guy. ;)

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark
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