A newly published patent application indicates that that Apple is considering a new security feature for its future devices that would replace passcodes with an image recognition system.

The patent filing, which was published by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday, covers a technology that would act as an alternative way to unlock a device, particularly for iPads and iPhones.

Users would be required to identify who is shown in a randomly selected photograph from the owner's contacts, by choosing the correct answer from a list of names. The user could either touch or click the name in the list, or use voice recognition to unlock the device, reports The Telegraph.

In the patent application, Apple explains that the passcode unlocking method used in its handheld devices "can be easily compromised".

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"For example, a thief sitting on a bus may notice the four characters that an unsuspecting person entered on the person's smartphone," Apple described. "As another example, a thief may pick up a tablet computer in a public place and discover, based on finger prints on the display of the tablet computer, which characters were recently selected by the owner of the tablet computer."

Apple notes that users could also be asked to identify information relating to other images. As an example, Apple says that an image of the Golden Gate Bridge could be shown to prompt the iPhone owner to type the code '5341' because they were the last digits of the phone number of someone they met there.

"Thus, '5341' must be entered whenever that image is displayed as part of the authentication process," Apple added.

It is not yet known whether Apple will use the proposed technology in future devices, but it is possible that the company will introduce an image recognition feature in iOS 7, which is expected to launch towards the middle of 2013.

The emergence of the image recognition patent follows reports in January that Apple will be introducing a fingerprint sensor with its iPhone 6 that will ask as a new way of unlocking the device.

Speculation that Apple is working to add a fingerprint sensor into its products sparked in July 2011, when Apple acquired Delaware-based security systems company AuthenTec, which specialises in fingerprint scanners.

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