PASSWORDS: Too Many and Not Enough

You accidentally activate something on your computer, tablet or sensitive smart phone screen and it suddenly freezes up. To unlock smarty phone, you need to get a passcode. To get a passcode, you need a password. To get a password, ‘you can use your new passcode to change your ID password for this phone. Please enter the ID password to continue. Password must include 8–20 characters, 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase and 1 number or symbol.’ Welcome to the digital age.

For some of us Password was a beloved 1950s TV game with a genial host leading the audience through a breezy experience. Now, password is an exasperating transaction, an unforgiving gatekeeper to the digital age.

It’s a big pain in the ass, writes a psychiatric social worker in response to this writer’s random survey. I hate it, says an international internet publisher. Hate it, dittos a public relations executive. Overwhelming, another PR expert reports. Very annoying, says a clinical psychologist.

If passwords are so awful, why do we have so many of them? According to an Intel survey, the average person has 27. Think that’s a lot? A city employee we surveyed has 150 passwords. A social worker’s collection is 50. A psychiatrist has 20. Yet, an international bridge player comes in with 8. And a clearly well-organized theatrical executive has only 3.

It is not just the amount of passwords we have, it’s where we stash them. Survey shows four main buckets for password safekeeping: on paper, in a computer file, in the cloud, and in our heads. The most commonly used are the computer and the cloud, which undoubtedly require more passwords.

Here’s the nub. Whether you have 1 of 100 of them, passwords do not provide any privacy or safety. Until we develop a system that cannot be hacked, stolen or manipulated, passwords, and their ‘pass code’ cousins, are useless, vestigial structures that only deliver insecurity and anxiety.

There is a solution available but it awaits widespread development, availability and usage. It is the use of our body parts, retinal scans and fingerprints. Until then, we lumber along with an 8–20 character, 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number word that allows access to the secret passcode — which is a whole other cheerless issue.

In a land where transparancy, availability and accessibility are valued, passwords are antithetical. Or as one astute thinker-doer writes us, “Passwords make me sad and make me feel stupid and winsome for lost eras.”

Indeed.

Tom Alderman is a thirty year veteran media analyst, trainer and founder of MediaPrep.

Tom Alderman is a thirty year veteran media analyst, trainer and founder of MediaPrep.