Password hell

When modern civilization collapses, it’s not going to be because of nukes, or global warming, or a terrorist attack. It’s going to be because we forgot too many of our passwords.

I can still remember the time when everyone had only one password. It wasn’t even called a password, it was called a “PIN,” and you used it to get money out of the ATM. (Actually nobody called them ATMs, they were all “cash machines,” but then some bank got wise and trademarked “cash machine,” so now we’re all stuck calling cash machines ATMs. But that’s another rant.) Nowadays you’ve got a different PIN for every day of the week. Each credit card comes with its own PIN, your voicemail has a PIN, and that’s just the beginning.

Then along came the Web. At first, the Web was simple: all you had to do was type in an address (they all started with “www”) and up came the information you needed — no passwords necessary. Now you can’t check on the weather before it starts asking you for a password. Soon there were so many passwords that the software programmers had a brilliant idea: password management! What does this mean for you and me? Now, in addition to remembering all the passwords we had before, we have to remember the password for the password management software.

Just the other day I was trying to fix my kids’ computer, and it kept asking me for the “keychain password.” I didn’t know the password, because the kids’ computer used to be my wife’s lab computer, and she has some totally different wacky password system that seems perfectly sensible to a cognitive psychologist (which she is) but not to a _______ (whatever I am). I didn’t even need the password — I was just trying to access the computer’s help file, but the computer was absolutely certain that if I just entered the “keychain password,” my life would be oh so much simpler. Needless to say, rather than rack my brain for whatever obscure psychological fact my wife had set as the password, I just tossed the computer out the window.

This, I think, is how the world is going to end. The mailroom clerk at the Global Infectious Disease Facility is going to call in sick one day, and so the facility director will have to [a] find the mailroom and [b] try to check the weather on the mailroom computer. Then [c] the computer will ask for his password, which the mailroom clerk will have foolishly changed from “password” to “hoobastank.” Finally, [d] in frustration, the facility director will fire the mailroom clerk. Which would be fine, except [e] the mailroom clerk also happens to know the password for his boss’s computer, which his boss has forgotten, which would be fine, but [f] his boss’s computer has the password for his boss’s boss’s computer, which controls the release of funky infectious diseases created during the cold war. Before they can find the mail clerk, seventeen different biotoxins will have been released into the atmosphere, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Which would be fine, but [g] one of them also happens to know the password for the Grand Coolee Dam, which subsequently bursts, killing thousands more innocent civilians, which would have been fine, except [h] it also kills a virologist who would have been able to discover the cure for a new disease beginning to develop in the pygmie roaches of Lithuania, which [i] will be transmitted to humans the following year. The primary symptom of this disease is a mysterious amnesia that causes its victim to forget every password they’ve ever learned except their ATM PIN. The inevitable result will be [j] chaos, anarchy, and finally, the tragic end of civilization as we know it.

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