One woman’s struggle with the day to day grind of extreme cryptography.
Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed
It is 8:46 in the morning and I have already created two new passwords.
I like to think of myself as your Average Person just trying to mail a package or buy a carton of spider eggs. I'd like to try that new organizational app so I can add it to my Museum of Unused Organizational Apps. I need to refill my prescriptions now and again and pay my taxes and student loans and manage my credit cards and the air miles that go with my credit cards and the “thank you” packages that go with managing my credit cards and air miles. I need to update my computer to do these things. Of course I've joined a few services to keep my information safe and a few services to help me remember all the things I've joined. Also, everything I have ever signed up for mates with some other service the second I close my laptop and I wake up to find that they've spawned a new service that will be even better than the last one!!!!
Every single one of these things needs a password, which is why it is 8:46 am and I have created two passwords already just trying to claim a birthday present and buy one reusable shopping bag. I've had no coffee and can't remember how to spell my name correctly but I've already had to generate two SECRETS that have to be complicated enough to stump the hackers.
You know the hackers. These hackers were accepted into MIT but decided not to go. They don't participate in the system. For college, they counted cards for a few years around the world, before something went wrong in Macau. They decided to take it online and go for bigger game. They have self-designed computers that they keep in steel suitcases. They exist on Red Bull and binary. They have already broken six worldwide financial security systems this very morning. Now they are after me.
I know what to do.
By now we all know that if you include any word in your password that relates to your life (a family member, pet, birthday, address, favorite blood group) — YOU ARE ALREADY DEAD. No, the true password is a randomly generated series of letters and numbers and symbols that would have made Alan Turing himself break down and cry had he tried to crack it. The longer the better! Make it fifty digits long! Use your elbows! Put the cat on the keyboard! That is a safe password and anything else is the equivalent of sprinkling gasoline all over your house and then inviting that kid with all the lighters who hangs out behind the supermarket to come over for a while and do whatever feels right.
I have a random password generator that pumps out this crap for me, as long as I want, as baffling as I want. It doesn't care. Its job is to generate gibberish. My job is to stick the gibberish into the required fields and smile because I am super-clever and have once again foiled the plans of the hackers who are GRINDING THEIR TEETH IN FRUSTRATION at my ingenuity. They will never get into my Sephora account now and they hate me for it, but they have to admit that I am a worthy adversary.
The minute I make my new password the site will want me to then return to the login page to re-enter it, because it's never enough to just make it. I must formally enter the site through the front door. I must be invited in. I must be a vampire. I will enter the new password correctly and it will not work because passwords do not work. I will never get into these accounts again, not with that string of garbage I just laid down.
Passwords are chosen — not by us, of course. There are many worlds between our fingers and the Misty Mountains where the passwords dwell. Not all who tread the path will make it. I will never know what went wrong. It is not for me to know. Some passwords are not meant to be, and when I say some, I mean the good ones that you remember, because hubris.
It's now pointless that I stored my password in my password storage system, which is guarded with its own password (which I actually have to remember because one can only expect so much from the password storage system). It's worse than pointless. The ghost of that password now lives in the machine and will be auto-entered forever. But that is a problem for another time. I must click the Link Of Shame and say I forgot my password, even though I didn't.
Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed
The “forgot your password” link is where the dance begins in earnest. This starts the cycle of one-time-use links to reset my password. Most of these links will also not work and I will have to click the shame button over and over until I finally get a screen demanding a new password. Once again, I will enter gobbledygook, and this time I will be thanked for successfully making a password. I already know in the back of my mind that this password too will betray me. It's already looking away from me. It can't meet my gaze.
Poof! It's gone. Goodbye, password. Did I hear it laugh as it vanished?
Can passwords laugh?
I am being redirected to the main page to enter my password again. I know better than to try. I console myself with the thought that I will probably not visit this site much, anyway. I do not need to bank.
I am playing Scrabble with a calculator.
In the meantime, I have received a dozen emails telling me I hit the button of shame over and over. Did I request a password change? Was that you, dummy? Did you? Someone did. Someone did. Someone did. Oh, you changed it! GOOD FOR YOU, SUNFLOWER. YOU DID IT.
I erase the emails with a bitter finger. DELETE. Wipe it away. This time I will record the password on a Post-It but I won't write what the password is FOR. That will thwart the hackers when they look in my windows. (The hackers have given up trying to beat me electronically. I'm too good. They have gotten ladders.) I will put it with the other six-dozen Post-Its full of random letters and numbers and symbols that fill an entre desk drawer. It is like a scene from Memento, where the man who loses his memory every fifteen minutes or so must constantly record things on notes for his future self, but his future self never knows what the notes mean and his entire life is a series of notes that make no sense. What is djhg7y(&>:mh7990ahYHjk? It looks like I wrote that one down only a few days ago. WHAT MAGIC DOES IT UNLOCK?
Close the drawer. That is not important now. I have done my best. I know that somewhere a software administrator has stored my password in a large file, the password for which is probably PASSWORD so all of the gestures I have just made are akin to a man yelling at clouds.
Next time — there will be a next time, I can already feel it over my shoulder — I will use the cat's name and my birthday because life is short. I have reached a place of acceptance and the password-remembering software won't update and I am out of Post-Its.
It is now 9:46am, and I do not know where my passwords are. I assume that when I forget them all, I will be cut off from the world. I will lose access to everything and all of my accounts will die. I will have to form a new society. I have been preparing for this.
That is what the spider eggs are for. They will be my friends. It will just be me and the spiders and we will not have computers. Spiders do not use passwords. They will spin webs and I will watch, and I will remember the time of the passwords. I will wonder why I tried to beat this impossible algorithmic game in which I tried to outwit machines with computing power that is largely impossible to calculate. The other day it took me five minutes to remember how to do long division. What chance did I ever have? The spiders understand this, in their silent way.
I also have a reusable shopping bag coming, so the time was not a complete waste.