The Password Nightmare

If you are sitting in front of your PC (if you are over 50 years of age) or staring at a mobile device (if you are under 30) and struggling with, “sch#m!t1/” or “Sc-h^m%…..” or some other weird and unpronounceable word, let me say, ‘Welcome to the maze called ‘Remembering Passwords’  –  otherwise known as, “Victory of Machine over Human”.

Passwords are a necessary evil that came into existence as the digital world evolved. In the centuries gone by, those who were lucky enough to have a PC probably had one place to log into and had up their sleeves ingenious passwords such as ‘abc123’ or ‘12345’ or something at the same level of complexity. And, more often than not, such a sophisticated password was written down on a piece of paper and stuck to the monitor in the living room.

Then came the online explosion – bank accounts, credit cards, multiple email accounts, online groups, Facebook, and so on. Overnight one had to develop an elephant memory for remembering passwords (called ‘credentials’ by the nerds who designed them). Again, simpletons like me were able to beat the system for a while with the ubiquitous ‘abc123’ as the universal password – but not for long. The powers that be, backed by real and imaginary security threats, started designing complex algorithms to force unsuspecting users to create passwords that were difficult to break – and more difficult to remember, if I may add.

Try creating a humane password for your bank account where the requirement is a minimum length of ten characters, no two characters repeated, beginning with an uppercase but ending with a non-alphabetic character with at least two numbers in between. You outsmart yourself by designing a word straight out of hieroglyphics, memorize it and try to adapt it as your panacea for all (password) evils – till you get to your next online account that politely but firmly informs you that the password cannot be more than 8 characters long and, sorry, no special characters allowed. You are ready to jump off the cliff at this stage.

But, wait, there is more, as they say in those intrusive TV ads! You have to change your password every 90 days (no doubt to keep you safe and secure, though at the risk of driving you insane) and you cannot use the past ten passwords. This is when you start keeping a written log of your password history with scant regard for the very security that the password is supposed to enhance.

There are of course other nuances with passwords such as the hints that ‘help’ you retrieve forgotten passwords – the high school where your grandma studied in her ninth grade (I am not sure if my grandma made it that far in school), the third letter of the month in which your eldest sibling was born (what about people who don’t have siblings?) and so on. This soon begins to look like a mystery adventure with Sherlock Holmes.

Let us end with a silver lining to this miserable saga. The increasing use of biometrics and retinal scans – with nothing to remember – as acceptable and preferred forms of identification may bring the much needed relief to the password challenged population.