A new patent application (PDF) published on Thursday by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, originally filed by Apple in July 2010, describes a system through which a user’s MacBook or iOS device password recovery information could be stored inside its charging adapter. It’s a unique approach that could at once make complicated, more secure passwords easier to use and frustrate potential thieves.
Current Macs use onboard password recovery tools, including a security question to remind you of what your password is. It’s a less-than-ideal arrangement to secure your devices; questions tend to provide clues to would-be thieves, and users tend to keep answers simple (i.e. words without additional numbers or characters) to ensure they can remember their own credentials based on the password question.
The system described in the patent would make it possible to not only keep a password retrieval tool off of the device by shifting its storage to the power adapter, which often aren’t stolen alongside notebooks, smartphones and tablets. It would also make it easier for users to switch to more secure, more complex password strings. That’s because an external “password recovery secret,” as the patent describes the hint system, could be more exact, since it exists off-device. In the images accompanying the patent, for instance, merely plugging in the adapter results in password retrieval and display.
In case of the loss of hardware, the patent also describes other systems for retrieval. You could back up your system to multiple peripherals that connect via hardline to your Mac, like printers and secondary power adapters, and also retrieve it from a remote server over a network. The real advantage, though, is in the ease of retrieval from a hardware source.
Apple patents don’t always make it to production devices, but this system looks like a good way to encourage safer security practices among the general computing population. It reminds me of the security keys MMOs like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic use to add another layer of protection to users’ accounts via external devices. And as a low-cost (it really only requires the addition of a very small storage memory module to power adapter devices), optional security feature that adds a lot of value, it would appeal to consumers and business users alike.