This PIN Can Be Easily Guessed: Analyzing the Security of Smartphone Unlock PINs

Philipp Markert, Daniel V. Bailey, Maximilian Golla, Markus Dürmuth, Adam J. Aviv

IEEE Sym­po­si­um on Se­cu­ri­ty and Pri­va­cy (SP '20). San Fran­cis­co, Ca­li­for­nia, USA, May 18-20, 2020


In this paper, we provide the first comprehensive study of user-chosen 4- and 6-digit PINs (n=1220) collected on smartphones with participants being explicitly primed for the situation of device unlocking. We find that against a throttled attacker (with 10, 30, or 100 guesses, matching the smartphone unlock setting), using 6-digit PINs instead of 4-digit PINs provides little to no increase in security, and surprisingly may even decrease security.

We also study the effects of blocklists, where a set of "easy to guess" PINs is disallowed during selection. Two such blocklists are in use today by iOS, for 4-digits (274 PINs) as well as 6-digits (2910 PINs). We extracted both blocklists compared them with four other blocklists, including a small 4-digit (27 PINs), a large 4-digit (2740 PINs), and two placebo blocklists for 4- and 6-digit PINs that always excluded the first-choice PIN. We find that relatively small blocklists in use today by iOS offer little or no benefit against a throttled guessing attack. Security gains are only observed when the blocklists are much larger, which in turn comes at the cost of increased user frustration. Our analysis suggests that a blocklist at about 10% of the PIN space may provide the best balance between usability and security.

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tags: authentication, blocklists, mobile, PIN