Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Hell is other passwords

Latest column in The Australian, in which I go slowly mad trying to remember lost passwords. 

To continue reading this column, please type in your password. Did that sentence just give you the heebie jeebies, the screaming meemies, the abject abdabs or provoke an incipient conniption fit?

Passwords have become the bane and precondition of modern existence, a daily exercise in memory dredging and hair-tearing, desk-pounding, expletive-laden frustration that at times can send one to the brink of an existential crisis.

Passwords, can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Without them, you can’t pass “Go” and you might go to jail. Lose them, and you could lose everything. Your finances, your secrets, your online personas, your very life and soul.

I lost all my passwords recently. Oh, I’d listened to all the experts, read the articles, was smugly self-assured that I was ahead of the password curve and doing everything humanly and digitally possible to protect myself and my treasured little snippets of gatekeeping gobbledygook. I’d recently updated all my key social media passwords. My staple had been a dead dog’s name and a series of digits (I had seven dogs and they’re all dead, hackers, and no, it wasn’t my birthday, and I’m broke anyway, so don’t waste your time).

Not particularly secure, but easy to remember. I changed them to things I thought I would remember, with digits and the requisite non-alphanumeric characters. Then I encased the lot in the digital steel of one of those safe apps, which cost me $10 or so, a hefty spend in the app world.

All good, until the morning I woke to find a vacant space on my springboard where my digital safe used to be. I grabbed my iPad in mounting panic. There, too, the app was gone. I refreshed. I scoured backups. I consulted the oracles of Google. Nothing I tried could locate or revive or restore the missing app. After wasting an entire morning on this quest, I uttered the saddest sound a human being can make, a tired, defeated shriek of impotent rage seguing into a mournful howl and tailing off into a whimper of futility.

When the tears dried, a moment of rational thought saw me track down the app’s maker, which I was able to glean from old reviews. Sorry, the company’s rep told me, Apple just kicked us out of their closed shop and we don’t know why.

That was it. No warning or opportunity to back up or change to another app. Either the app makers were lying and had committed some digital treachery, not a particularly reassuring thought when they are the holders of the keys to your banking details, life-enabling encryptions and the odd compromising photo or two, or Apple was an unreasonable, stony-faced god which had turned its back on them and me.

Either way, I sensed a losing battle. And so the long process began, getting password reset forms sent to email addresses. Of course, I had four email addresses and do you think I could remember which emails I’d used with dozens of websites and apps and platforms and portals?

Eventually, my digital life was restored. I was consoled by the fact that I wasn’t alone.

“It does my head in,” confided one friend. “I not only have to remember 200 of my own, I also have to remember passcodes for my kids so they don’t access material they shouldn’t. My head is full of this stuff. I actually don’t think there’s any room for anything else.” Said another: “It is impossible to live a modern life if you forget your Apple ID and I’ve done that twice.” Another took to writing them on random slips of paper and stuffing them in a shoebox. Old school, perhaps, but disappearing-app proof.

No less than a former editor of this very newspaper shared his deepest fear: “Passwords. I worry about forgetting them as I get older and I won’t be able to get into any of my accounts.”

Digital bad luck and trouble also ran in the family. From my brother: “I had a doc with all my passwords in and secured with a password. And forgot that password. We have seven laptops (two personal, two school, three work ones), four phones, three iPads, a PC, a server, three Kindles, an Xbox and each device has at least a password or passcode.” So lock up, back up, and hope for the best. It seems there are now three certainties in life. Death, taxes and passwords.

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