What follows is a cautionary tale about how passwords really need to go the way of the dodo. Until that happens we suggest using these two free, simple websites, HaveIbeenpwned and Hacked-Emails, to find out if you are at risk because one of your online accounts was compromised in a data breach. Simply enter your email address and the sites will search for it on databases of breached data. Both are very fast so it makes sense to use both as they have access to different sources of information. In addition to this, there is now a Have I Been P’Wnd extension for Firefox that will tell you if the website you are visiting has had a breach.
I had a mind-numbing experience earlier this year. It started right before 7 a.m.
It was May 3, also known as World Password Day. What insane person came up with this “holiday?” It’s not really about celebrating passwords, but reminding us to improve them or implement two-factor authentication. Isn’t there a better way? Personally, I’d like passwords to be roadkill on the technology highway and my recent experience with them illustrates why.
Here’s what happened.
I’ve been doing branding projects on and off for years under a company called Blue Sky Branding. Along with my website, I have an email account — one I check infrequently, as it’s not an active business. But that morning I thought, I’ll log in. At the very least I’d delete the spam.
I navigated over to webmail and, surprise, surprise, it didn’t recognize my password.
So, I try again and again, using all my usual passwords.
My password hygiene is pretty bad. Yes, I know the risks, but I can’t possibly remember separate passwords for all of my online accounts, numbering in excess of 70, between work, personal, banking, investment, and social media. While I use a password manager to give me a hand, it frequently fails to log me in, as was the case with Blue Sky Branding. It’s for that reason that I don’t allow the password manager to pick ridiculously complicated login strings.
Instead it remembers all the variations of the passwords I use for my multiple accounts.
But back to the issue at hand. I couldn’t login to my account. So I headed over to reset the password.
First, they want to know my mother’s maiden name (very secure!). Then the name of my favorite pet. Now, I’ve had a few pets over the years and I’m never certain of my favorite. Is it my current lab, my first cat? Damned if I can remember.
Happily, I managed to jump this hoop.
Now the hard part began. I tried over and over to reset my password, but each time it failed to accept it. I finally had to look at the rules, listed below:
- Must be at least 12 characters
- Must contain at least three of the following: An uppercase character, a lowercase character, a number (0-9), and a special character (!@#$%^&*)
- Must not be the same as your current password
- Must not include any portion of your email address
- Should not contain any personal information
I’m not sure this is humanly possible.
How can I remember a unique password that is 12 characters in length with all those conditions? The only way to remember it is: write it down, and thus the madness continues. Writing all my passwords down in my notes app on my computer is not safe or secure.
But what’s the alternative? Our brains are not wired to remember this many characters for all the discrete accounts we have.
Think about telephone numbers. They are only ten digits long, and there was a time when I was a kid that they were only seven (no need to use the local area code). I bet most of you can remember your childhood phone number and even those of your closest friends. Our brain can handle a seven-number string, but it’s much harder with 12, especially if they include numbers, special characters, capital letters, and on and on.
After 15 minutes I tired of this experience. I couldn’t reset my password, and I have no idea why. So, recalling that morning I say, kill the password.
A good friend of mine told me she wants her passwords implanted in her brain so that she never has to think about them. But we don’t have to go that far. We can simply get rid of them and use our biometrics instead. I do this for my bank account, why can’t I do it for every other account?
Instead of passwords killing our productivity let’s agree on World Password Day to kill them. Next year, I hope we’ll all be celebrating World Biometrics Day.
I’ll happily be its poster child.
Oh, did I mention, I can’t log into my Dropbox account, or my Lifetime Fitness account, either? Sigh.