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Password Un-Protected

In today's world of usernames, we get locked out of our own lives.

Reader beware: the following words are sure to bring a chill to your spine. Password. Username. Login ID. Security Question. Pin. 

Have you turned on the lights and grabbed your teddy bear yet? Yes, these are frightening words. Over the years, we have developed a phobia of all things password protected. And for good reason.

In today’s electronic world, we need passwords for online banking, PayPal, eBay, Facebook, shopping sites, travel sites and messaging our doctors. We have numerical codes and PINs for ATMs, debit cards, garage doors, bike locks, smart phones, dumb phones and voicemail.  Buy a new device or shop at a new site, and inevitably you’ll be asked to sign up, sign in, sign on or sign something using a secret combination of words and numbers known by no other living soul. 

Hard as we try to make our passwords memorable and numeric codes consistent, it is impossible. More often then not we get locked out of our own lives.

One password may be case sensitive. Another may require both letters and numbers. Some may be limited to four digits while others require six. Then we have to remember whether our login name is our email address (which email address?) or our lowercase full names? Did the password get reset because we entered the wrong password too many times? Since when did the rules of baseball get applied to digital access… three wrong password attempts and you’re out?   

Experts warn us that using combinations of our birthdates, street addresses, middle names and pets’ names are the easiest codes to crack. (Remember when Jon Stewart interviewed Bill Gates and asked him, in a conspiratorial whisper, “What was the name of your first pet?” The whole world leaned into the screen waiting for the answer so that we could gain access to his virtual life.)

Thus warned, we get really creative and then have to write down our various passwords and access codes on secret scraps of paper that we carefully lose. Why are they lost? Because we live in fear that someone will find them and gain access to our online lives. So we squirrel them away under keyboards, between book pages, in desk drawers, or even on a widget sticky right on the desktop.

But, it doesn’t matter where we stash them, because we can’t find them when we need them. That password on the sticky note? It won’t work with whatever we’re trying to access right now.

Here’s the good news: our kids know all of our access configurations.  Can’t remember that Netflix password? No problem. The kids know it.

Here’s the bad news: our kids know all of our access configurations. Can’t remember that Zappos password? Big problem. The kids know it.

For a while, the answer seemed to be a romanticized infatuation with the solution for security favored for every century but the current one:  get a lock with a physical key.

Several years ago, that’s what a combined tribunal of policemen, school administrators, and a county coroner told us we should do to secure our liquor cabinets. Like good citizens, we did. There was a physical key to a physical lock installed by a professional called, quaintly, a locksmith. 

That’s right. We have a liquor cabinet. It has a lock. There is a key.

If you think about it, that key is like a password. Or a User ID. Or a PIN. It’s the security check that let’s the good guys in and keeps the bad guys out.

It’s a great system, having a physical key.  No numbers to remember, no clever password to memorize.  Just a key…

A key to keep track of. And now the story again gets frightening because, like our passwords and our screen names and our User IDs and our PINS, we can’t remember where we put that key.

If our kids know where it is, the nightmare continues.

Sally Higginson September 26, 2011 at 03:03 AM
None of these password tips is helping me to find the key to our liquor cabinet!
Paul Smith September 26, 2011 at 02:46 PM
That would be an easy solution if you didn't have such good kids - just ask them where it is!
Tim Higginson September 26, 2011 at 06:22 PM
www.webhub.mobi is a free site that let's you store all your usernames/passwords along with links to each site, and it is designed to work across all your devices, so your usernames/passwords are available from your pc/laptop, your phone, your iPad, etc. It comes with a huge range of the web pre-package for you, and you can personalize it all you want when you register (for free). When you make a change from one device, everything is instantly available from any of your devices.
David Greenberg September 27, 2011 at 02:00 AM
The problem with storing your information on someone else's site is that trust is transitive. You trust everyone they trust, and you don't know everyone they know, so it's impossible to verify the trust. Those kinds of sites become targets for hackers, script kiddies, and all kinds of crooks because they're a giant honeypot of information. Chances are someone's going to store a password, the account number, mothers' maiden name, etc. in that thing. So if it get's cracked, the database gets stolen, or someone discovers a secret backdoor that the original programmer left in the code - everyone is up a creek. These sites are out to make a buck somehow (whether it's advertising or a premium fee-only service), so you're not going to be able to see the source code to the site to verify it's clean. I agree that most people wouldn't review the code from a free item anyway - but the fact that it's available means that *some* geek, somewhere could review it for you if you want (or multiple geeks if you're paranoid), and vet out the code for problems. The best security is remembering it. Short of that, keep it on your own devices, under your own control.
Ronnie Schwartz September 27, 2011 at 08:19 PM
am trying to remember my password to The Patch!

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