Local Lifestyle

Friday, Apr 11 2014 02:52 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Passwords keep my accounts safe -- from me

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    Valerie Schultz

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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist

When I was a kid, "Password" was a TV game show that came on in the afternoons. Competing teams of partners, usually a minor celebrity and a normal person, were allowed only to give each other one-word clues to help them guess the secret password. At the beginning of each timed round, the voiceover announcer would intone in a somber stage whisper, "The password is ... cabbage."

Or piano . Or Atlantic City. He said it sotto voce, as though the contestants might hear him if he spoke any louder.

My point is that "Password" was synonymous with a game show. Regular people did not have passwords. Passwords were for Cold War double agents, or to get into a Prohibition-era speakeasy. If anyone in my family ever jokingly asked for a password, the answer was swordfish , in honor of the Marx Brothers. And you had to say it with Chico's accent.

Now my life is filled with scores of passwords. Online shopping and banking and bill-paying are wonders of the modern age, but they are not without their drawbacks, mainly because I have a rough time remembering all the user names and passwords that give me access to each account. Believe me, I would ignore the expert advice and use the same password all the time, but the requirements for passwords differ from site to site. Sometimes a website will get snarky with me: "Valid password requires a CAPITAL LETTER," it will say, as it rejects my trusted go-to combo. Some sites demand numbers, or symbols. Some have length requirements. It's impossible not to have to conjure up new passwords from time to time. User names are almost as bad, because sometimes my standard user name is already taken. Taken? Are you kidding me? Who else would use that weird moniker? Then I have to think up an even weirder one, because my regular name is always taken. I confess that I have all my user names and passwords written down, in a place a hacker would never suspect, because my brain just can't hold them all and keep them organized.

Of course it is possible to request one's password if one has forgotten it, but waiting for permission to arrive via email and then resetting the password rather defeats the goal of saving time by transacting online. And even if I successfully reset a password, there is no guarantee that I will remember the new one the next time I need to log into a certain website. My husband and I had a strange interlude with this very newspaper, in that one of us would forget the password to our online account and change it, and neglect to tell the other, whose old password no longer worked and who then changed it again. You can see the vicious cycle, the password vortex, which this created, until we finally figured out that we were regularly freezing each other out of our online subscription to The Californian. Now we are on the same virtual page.

At work I am required to change my password every month, and create a new one every time, and I am never supposed to use familiar words or dates or names, and I am never supposed to share my password with anyone, and I am never supposed to write it down anywhere, ever. I comply with all of these rules, except that I find that I must write it down. But I don't write the actual password: I use a secret code. But then I have to remember how to decode the code. I understand the necessity for technological security, but I also worry about securing myself right out of my work.

I acknowledge that I am a technology dinosaur. "You haven't bought a new computer since 2009 ?" our tax preparer asked me recently, as though this were a moral failing on my part, as he gave us the bad news of how much we owed on our 1040. Apparently the government would be more forgiving if I bought a new laptop every year, just so I could deduct it. The problem is that I develop a relationship with my laptop. It has taken me a while to warm up to the 2009 MacBook, which replaced a more antiquated model. I think of the writers of the last century, who pecked away on their same Underwood typewriter for decades, and I realize that the past is really past. All these smart devices need me to be a smarter user. Passwords are here to stay, at least until future innovations insist on scanning my eyeball or extracting my DNA. By then I hope that the unseen announcer of life whispers in my ear that "the password is ... retire."

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her atvschultz22@gmail.com.

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