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 media 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 be- cause 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 own life, playing hide and seek with our own 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 the 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 different versions of our own selves scattered all over the digital world, that sometimes we find it difficult to recognise ourselves. Sometimes, we get locked out by our own creation. And sometimes $190 million disappear as a result.
Great white pelican New Delhi: There is reason to cheer for birders across NCR this year with the results of the Big Bird Day 2019 revealing a slight increase in the number of bird species as compared to last year. While the total count of species last year was 238, the number has swollen to 247 species this year with Dighal in NCR recording the highest diversity of species in terms of numbers.
“The response has been great this year. Wetlands across NCR saw low numbers North Khadar |
Dighal | Sultanpur outskirts |