Pass­word-pro­tected life

The Times of India (Mumbai edition) - - TIMES CITY - Santosh Desai

The sud­den death of a cryp­tocur­rency en­trepreneur has locked out in­vestors of a re­ported $190 mil­lion. No one else has ac­cess to his pass­word, and not sur­pris­ingly, given the na­ture of the busi­ness, it has proved im­pos­si­ble to crack in spite of the best ef­forts by ex­perts. Some­what like Schrodinger’s Cat, this is money that is sus­pended be­tween be­ing and non-be­ing — an ab­strac­tion that is likely to be of lit­tle com­fort to those whose in­vest­ment now lies in limbo. If the vast body of knowl­edge that we have ac­cu­mu­lated by watch­ing movies and TV shows were to be be­lieved, the mav­er­ick hacker, with just the right amount of ir­rev­er­ence, is al­ways able to crack vir­tu­ally any pass­word just in the nick of time. Alas, that does not seem to have hap­pened this time around. But it does raise some in­ter­est­ing ques­tions about nav­i­gat­ing a vir­tual world, where the lack of ma­te­ri­al­ity poses new kinds of op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges.

We live in a pass­word pro­tected world. We need a pass­word to un­lock our phone af­ter ev­ery few min­utes, we need one to log on to our com­puter, to op­er­ate our so­cial me- dia sites, and for vir­tu­ally any trans­ac­tion that we en­ter into dig­i­tally. Given the vast num­ber of oc­ca­sions on which we need to sup­ply pass­words, it is be­com­ing ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to keep track of our own safety mech­a­nisms. Ev­ery site seems to re­quire pass­words in a slightly dif­fer­ent for­mat, and in any case, it makes sense for safety rea­sons to keep more than just a cou­ple of pass­words for ev­ery­thing. The re­sult is that one ends up gen­er­at­ing a vast num­ber of pass­words, many with ir­ri­tat­ingly sim­i­lar for­mats, that one sim­ply can­not keep track of. Ev­ery time we for­get a pass­word, we gen­er­ate a new one on the spur of the mo­ment, and promptly for­get it, so that the next time around we need to gen­er­ate yet an­other new one.

The pass­word is a way to make the or­di­nary mag­i­cal. Like a mantra where words take on a power quite beyond their lit­eral mean­ing, the pass­word con­verts a ran­dom scrap of mem­ory into a po­tent bar­rier to ac­cess. Ar­bi­trary se­crecy is ac­corded to a date, pet name, old ad­dress, or a ba­sic string of num­bers; ide­ally, good pass­words do not use mem­o­ries that are very sig­nif­i­cant, for those are eas­ier to ac­cess. One’s date of birth for in­stance is pub­lic knowl­edge in a world where ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion with a shop, ho­tel, restau­rant, bank needs for one to re­veal this ba­sic piece of in­for­ma­tion. Ob­scure mem­o­ries make for safer pass­words, but by def­i­ni­tion, these are harder to re­mem­ber.

The re­sult is that we end up cre­at­ing lit­tle ter­ri­to­ries ruled by dif­fer­ent pass­words; each com­bi­na­tion has its own do­min­ion. We nav­i­gate a world made com­plex by the prod­ucts of our own mind, fre­quently lock­ing our­selves out be­cause we can­not keep track of our own mem­o­ries. Most of the times, we are pro­tect­ing in­for­ma­tion that no one else is re­ally in­ter­ested in, but given the un­spe­cific but loom­ing threat of hack­ing and se­cu­rity breaches, we have no choice but to sur­round our­selves with pass­words. In ef­fect, we are con­stantly lock­ing and un­lock­ing lit­tle bits of our life, play­ing hide and seek with our selves.

There is a fas­ci­na­tion for the pass­word that goes back a long way. There are sev­eral ex­am­ples of the idea of a mu­tu­ally shared bit of knowl­edge be­ing used as a lock and key. In the world cre­ated by Enid Bly­ton, the Se­cret Seven, for in­stance, re­quired any­one who sought en­try to their lit­tle club­house to ut­ter the magic words. Hindi films showed us smug­glers that used code words and torn cur­rency notes as ver­i­fi­ca­tion tools. In PG Wode­house’s Leave It to Psmith, our un­flap­pable epony­mous hero has to make con­tact with an in­for­mant us­ing the code ‘It is go­ing to rain in Northum­ber­land’ and then wait­ing to hear ‘Good for the crops’ in re­sponse.

Un­like the com­bi­na­tion lock that uses a set of fi­nite nu­mer­als, which given in­fi­nite time, are easy to crack, the mod­ern pass­word is a much more com­plex beast. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less, and one can dream up the most ob­scure pass­words. Of course, the flip side of this com­plex­ity is the fact that about 50% of peo­ple use one of the top 25 pass­words in world — the top 5 be­ing as imag­i­na­tive as 123456, pass­word, 123456789,12345678 and 12345 (num­ber 23 on the list was don­ald). This points to the fact that for most users, the pass­word is seen as a hur­dle for one­self rather than as a bar­rier for oth­ers. The anx­i­ety seems to be di­rected more at one’s own mem­ory than at the fear of be­ing breached.

As pass­words be­come more nu­mer­ous and com­plex in­creas­ingly, so­lu­tions are be­ing found. To­day, the ma­chine gen­er­ates its own sug­ges­tions and help­fully sup­plies them when needed. Hu­man mem­ory is by­passed; ma­chines keep se­crets from ma­chines. Pass­word man­agers too step in to help and keep track of one’s var­i­ous pass­words. The OTP (One Time Pass­word) has eased the prob­lem by ob­vi­at­ing the need for us to re­mem­ber any­thing.

In­ter­est­ingly, along with pass­words, comes the pro­lif­er­a­tion of user­names. Ear­lier, there was lit­tle room for con­fu­sion when it came to iden­ti­fy­ing one­self — one’s name was one’s pass­port. To­day, how­ever, it is not that sim­ple. We cre­ate a plethora of iden­ti­ties, and present our­selves dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent places. Keep­ing track of who all we are is get­ting in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

The in­ter­net is a prod­uct of the mind and it is only to be ex­pected that it is ad­min­is­tered by other prod­ucts of the mind. Over a pe­riod of time, we find so many ver­sions of our­selves all over the dig­i­tal world, that some­times we find it dif­fi­cult to recog­nise our­selves. Some­times, we get locked out by our cre­ation. And some­times $190 mil­lion dis­ap­pear as a re­sult.

Getty Im­ages/iStockphoto

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.