SECURITY

Lock-less Monster

A light-hearted look at how you may be hurting productivity by making sure everything is securely protected with passwords.
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In which spuglucz, smergreb, and other unmemorable passwords fight to be not kept in mind

I used to be an effective manager. Then my company acquired a computer system so powerful and expensive we needed digital technology to handle our security problems.

Now I'm just another security tester.

Back when everything was analog -- you know, LP records, watches with hands, carbon paper, slide rules -- security was analog, too.

There were guards and night watchmen. They used analog methods: "You don't look like you belong here." Important stuff was locked up instead of backed up. There were fire extinguishers on every floor. Someone had to inspect them every so often by reading the analog gauge on their tops to make sure they'd work in a fire.

Now everything has been digitized, and everything has a password.

For security reasons everything has a unique password. And the children of the old watchman, who used to judge whether you had an honest face, now program the computer network to remind you to forget those passwords.

Oh, they don't actually come out and say, "You have to forget all your passwords so you can't do any work."

What they say is, "You have to keep changing your password every 10 minutes for security reasons."

And, "Make sure you pick a password that isn't anything like your other passwords, or a common number, like your phone number, or any ordinary English word or name or sensible combination."

And the perfect suggestion to make you forget all your passwords: "Make sure they aren't anything anyone else can guess."

If you follow all those rules, no outsider can get into your voice-mail box, your computer account, your computer-network account, your screen saver, your account on the fax and copy machines, the parking garage, or the bathroom.

And neither can you.

And even if you can, you'll still have to spend your day thinking up new, alien, and unmemorable passwords. "Spuglucz, that's pretty good. I'll just type that right in here, and nobody will ever get it out of me."

So you type it right in, and forget it in 20 minutes.

Now you're sitting there, deadline clock pulsing ominously, trying to reconstruct how you invented a perfectly nonsensical password. "Well, I didn't use anything like my name. I didn't use any ordinary English words or numbers that could be connected with me. It was something I'd never said or heard. Like smergreb. But it wasn't that, because I've never heard or said that before, not even 20 minutes ago. Did it begin with an s? Maybe it did. Begins with an s, isn't smergreb, is it . . . sgummlert?"

No, it isn't.

So here we have a national problem. At my company I am paid not to write a staffing plan, not to create a sales brochure, not to evaluate suppliers or to interview customers. No, no. I am paid to think up words, like spuglucz, that have no memorable qualities. Then when I forget spuglucz, I am paid some more to stare at the screen and invent words even more valueless than spuglucz. Words like smergreb and sgummlert, words that not only are unmemorable but won't even get me into my computer, which spuglucz at least would do, if I could remember it.

But our computer protections pale in comparison to our newest security system, which involves a series of touch pads and a six-digit code. What worries me is that those puppies are going on all the main doors. I used to have a key to those doors. A key. A literal piece of metal, as we used to say back before the word literal reversed its meaning from "actual" to "metaphorically reminiscent of." I mean, I had one of those brass jobbers with a unique analog encryption up one side. A key.

This password will be an easy one for me to create. I never have a problem coming up with an unmemorable number because all numbers are unmemorable for me. I can think of a six-digit number I would never think of faster than you could push the Merc-O-Matic transmission buttons on a 1958 Mercury.

But if I can't remember the password, that may be the hour of downsizing myself. And if the new system breaks, the whole company will be out on the sidewalk.

Maybe firefighters will come and chop down the door with axes. That is, if we haven't forgotten the access codes for the fire alarms.

* * *

Moe Meyerson is a manager at a rapidly growing company.

Last updated: Jun 15, 1995




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