Mental blanks sometimes happen to the best of us – and they often happen to people like me.
Only yesterday, for example, I needed to log on to my old laptop (my current one having decided to freeze). But what the hell was the password that I used to use? My son’s name? My daughter’s name? My partner’s name? After twenty minutes trial and error, I finally remembered: it was the name of my dog.
Further trouble arrived when I turned to my second task of the day: logging on to a rarely-used bank account in order to pay an overdue bill. But damned if I could remember that password, either. And when I called the bank to ask for some help – a process which of course took about half an hour – it turned out that I also have a phone password, and because I’d forgotten that I need to go to a branch.
It was the sort of morning that made me want to listen to something soothing and sounds-of-the-foresty – and if I’d been able to remember my Apple ID, I would have gone to iTunes and bought some.
Does this story sound familiar? The password in question doesn’t have to be bank-related (and feel free to give the main character a higher IQ). I suspect that the answer is yes. As the internet grows, our reliance on passwords has grown with it, to the point where it’s simply outsized. We use passwords buy goods and services, and to find and share information; to log on to work servers and to socialise with friends.
According to Centrify, the average person now has about 21 online passwords that they need to remember (on top of “off-line” ones, like bike locks and PINs). "In our new digital lifestyles, our frustrations are increasing as we constantly juggle multiple passwords for everything from photo sharing apps and Facebook to shopping sites and email,” says that tech company’s Barry Scott.
And let’s not forget that passwords are supposed to be forgettable. Every time we have to come up with a new one, we’re told to make it as tough to hack as we can. That means no significant dates and no proper nouns, and ideally nothing personal at all. It means arcane combinations of letters – some upper case, some lower case – interposed with random numbers and strange symbols. Something like [email protected]$E, say. Or U9gg89ji((#bjKB.
And good internet security also means changing that random gibberish every three to six months, and never telling it to anyone or writing it down.
If remembering the results sounds difficult, that’s because it is. According to another survey, three quarters of internet users forget their passwords “repeatedly” – and a quarter of us forget one every day.
Needless to say, this gets a little annoying. “We've all heard of road rage and air rage, but now there's a new one on the block – password rage,” says Scott. Somewhere in the Western world right now, you can be sure that someone is screaming at their computer – or throwing it onto the floor so they can bang their head on the desk. Forgetting a password is more annoying than losing your keys, according to yet another survey, and many people say that they’d rather have root canal surgery, or sit next to a small child on a plane.
It’s a mental illness, of a sort, called “password fatigue” – and increasing number of us are trying our own cure. Broadly speaking, this involves using the same password for pretty much everything, making it simple, and maybe writing it down. According to Splashdata, password is far and away the most common password, and 12345 comes in at number two.
By analysing around 3.3 million passwords which were leaked last year, it found that almost one in ten of us use a name plus a year, or an easy-to-recall number like 2468, while the top 100 is full of swear words, sports teams, films and books.
“What the database made clear,” says the computer scientist Joseph Bonneau, “was that humans really are the weak link when it comes to data security.”
But hang on, why were 3.3 million passwords leaked last year, Joseph? That number doesn’t come from people who let their password slip to a friend – who told a friend, who told a friend, who told a crim. That number comes from people hacking into databases at big companies. And no matter how many #$36%s you insert into your password, that’s ultimately an issue that’s beyond your control.
“I’ve lived the majority of my life online,” says one such “weak link,” who puts his passwords on a Post-it note, “and I know that privacy is thin at best. If the hackers really want to read my Gmail and see what’s happening with my daughter’s school committee, they can have at it.”
I have to say that I’m beginning to agree with him. The most “secure” data is often breached anyway, so why not just have one or two memorable passwords and God-knows-how-much more peace of mind?
Anyway, gotta go: I’m off to the bank.
Do you suffer from password fatigue? Let us know in the comments.
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