Planet Password

Digital Journal, May 21, 2009.

Ages ago—for it surely feels that way now—when they first came on the scene, they were mere gateways to your electronic mailbox. How frequently you crossed paths with them depended on how often you checked your e-mail.

Your interaction with them was limited to a very short window of time. Their presence, if at all, it can be called that, was unobtrusive; their hold over your life, negligible.

But now, there’s no getting around them. They rule you because they are ubiquitous. Like tenacious tendrils of ivy that wrap themselves around unsuspecting tree trunks, they’ve inveigled their way into nearly every stretch of the online realm.

You need them to make payments on your utility bills, rent movies, bank, shop, read, post, publish, and even seek a mate on a dating Web site.

Dear reader: I’m alluding to passwords.

And, I’m penning this piece because I’m experiencing symptoms of “password fatigue”—psychological stress emanating from having to store multiple security codes in my biological hard drive.

Word Spy defines it as “mental exhaustion and frustration caused by having to remember a large number of passwords.”

I, like most folks these days, spend nearly every waking hour in front of the fluorescent, bluish-white halo of an LCD screen.

Working offline—typing a document on Microsoft Word, creating a PowerPoint slide, or editing a photograph on Photoshop—per se, isn’t so strenuous.

It’s only when you begin journeying to a myriad Web sites that you feel your energy level slowly whittling. 

As you watch the Sun slide from the East to the West, a feeling of listlessness stealthily creeps on you. You begin to wonder what back breaking labor you’d engaged in to feel so tired. You didn’t pick cotton. You didn’t draw water from a well. You certainly didn’t hew the woods.

You’re simply tired from visiting too many websites and having to punch in too many codes, too many times.

I can’t recall how many times I’ve had to sit staring at the computer monitor and have the genie of “INCORRECT PASSWORD” wag its finger disapprovingly at me.

I peck furiously at the keyboard. When I can’t make it past the gate, I realize, “Oh, that’s my HSBC password!” No, wait, that’s the one I use for Gmail. Or, was that the one for eBay?

What’s the average number of passwords a person has? According to the 2002 NTA Monitor Password Survey, the typical Internet-user juggles least 21 passwords.

The result? 61 percent of people use the same password for everything.

As far as Internet usage goes, you’re caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.

Use one password for all the Web sites and it defeats the purpose of using one. By taking the one-size-fits-all approach, you’re only leaving the door ajar to a possible attack by a hacker.

Have a different password for every portal you visit and you’re likely to forget them even before you’ve had a chance to sign out. Write your password collection down on a little spiral notebook and it may fall into the wrong hands.

What’s causing password fatigue is the necessity to: (1) create a new password each time you want to access a new site; (2) generate a unique alpha-numeric code that’s a particular sequence of alphabets, numbers, and special characters; (3) type the new password twice; and (4) type as you think or think as you type.

After all the frenzied synaptic activity to come up with that one unbreakable code, you’d think you’re pretty darn invincible, wouldn’t you? Add to that the clutch of security questions, whom you think, only you know the answers to. Who dare infiltrate your cyber empire?

But somewhere, in a deep ridge in your mind, you know that you aren’t invincible. Textual passwords are susceptible to “dictionary attacks,” are often difficult to remember, and are vulnerable to “shoulder surfing.”

Single sign-on software can mitigate password fatigue and its related side effects. Users would need to keep track of one master password, which would automatically unlock affiliated accounts. That would surely be a giant leap of an improvement over the present chaos.

But a potential downside is that if you lost the central password, you’d be cut off from all connected services. Plus, in the unlikely event that you should become a victim of phishing, you’d be serving information to your attacker on a silver platter, so to speak.

But passwords aren’t likely to vanish anytime soon. Or, at least, not until “pass-thoughts” (a portmanteau of “password” and “thought”) come along.

A team of Carlton University professors, conducting research in the area of Brain-Computer Interface believe that in the future, we’ll authenticate computer systems by our thought patterns, which are unique to individuals.

From their paper:

Imagine if we could authenticate by thinking a password. We could avoid the shoulder-surfing problem associated with most “what you know” schemes by simply “transmitting” some chosen thought, authenticating with our minds. While such an idea might appear to lie in the realm of science-fiction, recent advances in Brain-Computer Interface technology give evidence that authenticating with our minds is within our technological reach.

The “Harry Potter” universe gives us a glimpse into an even more enchanting mechanism.

Deep in the bowels of a marmoreal building on Diagon Alley, in London, flanked by a maze of dark stone passageways, are the vaults of the Gringotts Bank. Delightfully, opening them doesn’t require passwords. Most use matchstick-size golden keys.

High-security vaults use special charms. Better yet, the door to vault No. 713 needs to be stroked by a certified banker, a Gringotts goblin, which causes it to melt away. If, however, anyone but an authorized wizard touches the door, he or she will be sucked inside and trapped.

Presently, I think I shall set up an account at Gringotts, while the rest of you can knock on the doors of Bank of America. A password generator will guide you along the way.

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