Emerging Technologies

Why your next password might be an emoji

A woman uses her Apple iPhone while waiting to cross 5th Avenue in New York, September 20, 2012.  Apple's iPhone 5 goes on sale tomorrow as Apple works to increase it's market share in the mobile phone market. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TELECOMS SOCIETY) - RTR387LK

Most smartphone users keep their screens locked and need to unlock them numerous times a day. Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Florian Schaub
Assistant Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Emerging Technologies?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Media, Entertainment and Sport is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Emerging Technologies

Would you rather unlock your smartphone with a plain four-digit PIN or with a smiley-face emoji? Would it be easier and more pleasant to remember “🐱💦🎆🎌,” for example, or “2476”?

Smartphone users commonly use emojis to express moods, emotions and nuances in emails and text messages – and even communicate entire messages only with emojis. In 2015, a British company tried using emoji passcodes in place of PINs at bank ATMs. But there had been no formal study of how easy they were to use, or how secure they were in comparison to other methods, like PINs.

To learn more, in the lab and in the real world, a team of researchers from the Technical University Berlin, Ulm University and University of Michigan, led by TU Berlin Ph.D. candidate Lydia Kraus, developed EmojiAuth, an emoji-based login system for Android smartphones. How well would users remember their emoji passcodes? Could they be more secure, too? And might they be more fun, adding a bit of enjoyment every time a user unlocked her phone?

Image: Apple

Creating emoji passcodes

Most smartphone users keep their screens locked and need to unlock them numerous times a day. Many people use numerical PINs, but research tells us that images are easier to memorize and recall than numbers or letters. PINs can also only be composed from a small number of symbols: the numbers 0 to 9. Passwords can be created from a larger set of characters but are difficult to type on smartphones. Using emojis, on the other hand, allows us to draw from over 2,500 emojis, which promises passcodes that are more resistant to cracking and casual observation.

In our initial experiment, we gave 53 participants an Android phone and divided them into two groups. The first group of 27 people selected a passcode made up of any of 12 emojis on an emoji keyboard individually generated for each user from the library of all possible emoji icons. (Once set, each user’s emoji keyboard stayed the same.) The remaining 26 people picked a numeric PIN.

People most frequently used one of three methods to choose an emoji sequence: based on a pattern on the emoji keyboard (such as down one side or emojis in the corners), personal preferences for particular emojis and constructing stories with the emojis. For example, one participant had a song in mind and chose emojis that corresponded to the words of the song. After practicing entering their new passwords several times, the subjects were asked to return a week later to reenter their passwords into our test smartphone.

Our lab results showed both PINs and emoji passcodes were very memorable. Overall, PIN users remembered their passwords slightly more often, though that may be because many people are used to memorizing PINs. But the people who used emoji passcodes reported having more fun entering their codes.

Out in the field

Next, we wanted to explore how emoji passcodes held up in everyday use. On the Android phones of 41 participants, we installed a special login screen for their smartphones’ email app for about two weeks. About half of them used emoji passcodes; the others used PINs.

As we had found in the lab study, the users who used emoji passcodes picked emojis that made patterns on the keyboard, or that they personally like, or matched stories they made up.

Both groups of users, those using emojis and those using PINs, reported their passcode was easy to remember and use. But the emoji-using group’s passcodes were more fun to enter than just numbers.

Additional security

At the end of the field study, we tested the security of emoji passcodes. We asked participants to “shoulder surf,” peeking over the researcher’s shoulder while she entered a passcode.

We found that emoji passcodes consisting of six randomly selected emojis were hardest to steal over a user’s shoulder. Other types of passcodes, such as four or six emojis in a pattern, or four or six numeric digits, were easier to observe and recall correctly.

Our studies, which one of our team is presenting on May 30 in Rome, show that emoji-based mobile authentication is not only practical but also an enjoyable method of remembering and protecting passwords – so long as users don’t use emojis in a sequence that correspond to a pattern on the keyboard.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesMedia, Entertainment and SportFourth Industrial Revolution
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How to build the skills needed for the age of AI

Juliana Guaqueta Ospina

April 11, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum