These days it seems the tentacles of technology reach into every corner of our lives, leaving us struggling to maintain our privacy and protect our secrets. And for most of us, our passwords are a key part of our defense.
Yet despite the constant warnings that we should choose cryptic, nonsensical alphanumeric combinations that no one can remember, many of us cling to the same passwords, often because they have special meaning to us and are therefore easy to remember. These are what writer Ian Urbina, in “The Secret Life of Passwords,” calls “keepsake passwords … tchotchkes of our inner lives.” Such passwords remind us of our tragedies, triumphs, hopes, and sorrows — the things that make us human and unique, personal touchstones in the impersonal world of technology.
Friends, family, and strangers were willing to reveal their passwords and the reasons behind them, and Urbina has rolled it all into an intriguing narrative.
Among the stories:
- A former prisoner whose password includes what used to be his inmate identification number (“a reminder not to go back”)
- People who use “incorrect” for their password so that when they forgot it, the software automatically prompts them with the right one (“your password is incorrect”)
- A woman who discovered her husband was still using a former girlfriend’s birthday as his password
- A mother who discovered her dead son’s password meant he was gay, something she’d never known
- A wordplay-loving computer scientist whose password “TnsitTpsif” stands for “The next sentence is true. The previous sentence is false,” the classic philosophy’s liar’s paradox.
A much longer story tells about Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services firm that was nearly destroyed when 658 employees died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Those employees had known all the passwords necessary to access the firms computers. Lutnick, through conversations with surviving relatives, managed to learn enough about pet names, birthdates, anniversaries, hobbies, etc., to enable a team of Microsoft experts to guess passwords and retrieve critical files.
The article is extensive and the anecdotes sometimes overly long. But you’ll likely keep reading because we all use passwords and we all love secrets.
“Passwords do more than protect data.
They protect dreams, secrets, fears and even clues to troubled pasts,
and for some, they serve as an everyday reminder of what matters most.”