According to most sources, incomprehensible passwords that look like the result of a cat walking on the keyboard are the most secure. These passwords, because they do not contain allusions to the language of their human users (“no dictionary words!”), seem impersonal but do the best security work. I’ve recently started using a password manager because the number of passwords I’m asked to manage is too much. I can’t remember any of them, and it feels like I’m handing over part of my life to a computer. Nevertheless, info security is important so I concede.
I wondered if this is why some people are reluctant to change their passwords. Like a personalized desktop wallpaper, font settings, and other customizations to our digital environments, our passwords allow a little humanity into our otherwise cold, impersonal digital existence.
I thought about the first password I ever generated on my own. In the late 1990s, when an AOL trial disc came in the mail almost every day, I entered a username that would tell the world who I was in 10 characters. But the password–that was just for me. A secret code to unlock the cyber version of my life. Imbued with such gravity, “bnl11237” represented everything that was important to 15 year old me. “bnl” stood for Barenaked Ladies, my favorite music group (as true today as it was then!), and “11237” is the zip code for Brooklyn, NY, home to my favorite character in Newsies, a film that consumed all of my free time. Laugh if you will, but what does your password say about you? Do you use the name of your favorite vacation spot? The number of children you have? The name of an old car or street you used to live on?
Another of my former passwords relates to a family anecdote. When she was young, my mother’s aunt refused to wear glasses, so she memorized the optometrist’s eye chart to make it seem like she could see all the letters. Every time I type it, I’m reminded of my family, and the mix of numbers and letters just happens to make a great password base.
Ian Urbina wrote about the secret life of passwords for a heart-wrenching, thought-provoking New York Times piece. When you change your password from something personal, it may feel like you’re betraying that part of your life. I know I felt that way when I gave up “bnl11237.” If you’re not ready to give up on the personal password yet, try to make your existing password more secure by replacing letters with uppercase letters, numbers, or symbols. You can also use a sentence that means something to you to create what looks like a random selection of letters. Here’s an example:
Meaningful to me: “My two year old son [his name] loves trains and trucks”
Password Translation: m2yosDlt&t!
Changing your passwords can be a tedious chore, but you don’t have to give up on what makes your life meaningful. Strong passwords can be special too!