Erikka Askeland: Chipping away at insecurity

Trying to create the unbreakable password is now one of life's challenges. Picture: AFP
Trying to create the unbreakable password is now one of life's challenges. Picture: AFP
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THERE is a fundamental flaw fizzing dangerously in the heart of modern western society. And no, I’m not talking about the recession, the intractable divide of the gay marriage debate, or even the rise of Justin Beiber.

The trouble is pretty much everyone now has one, or worse, they have too many. And like the fearsome hydra who grew back two heads every time one was chopped off, it is a vexatious problem of unwanted proliferation.

Dear reader, I am talking about passwords.

Without them, all hell would break loose as sinister gangs of IT nerds typing away in boiler rooms in Volvograd or Shenzen crack easy passwords such as “1,2,3,4” to break into our secrets. But with them, we are caught in an increasingly complex web of codes of eight characters or more. And the less memorable and more impossible to type they are, the better. Take for example the year you were born. If you are reading this it is likely the four numeral sequence starts with “1” and “9”. But if it is a “2” and “0”, well done for being so distinguished in your choice of reading material at a relatively early age.

Some people use the year they or their children were born as a password – an elementary mistake. The trouble is that every hacker worth their silicon knows the first half of the code is a no-brainer. That and they have sophisticated software that runs any combination of numbers in the blink of an eye, which means that as soon as it’s cracked, they can reach in and dig out all your bank details and credit card information.

The same goes for names, words found in a dictionary and even adjacent letters on the keyboard. The evil nerds have been there, done that and got the passcode.

But the expert advice on how to protect oneself from having a mortgage taken out in your name by a hacker in eastern Europe is patently ridiculous. The latest craze is to create a highly uncrackable password.To do this, you think up a random but memorable phrase, say, “I ate cheese at night time”. The sentence then becomes the key to the code: you shorten it by using the first letters of every word, adding numerals and other characters, so you end up with something like “i8chz@NT”. Actually, it’s not a bad way to remember things. But the problem with this solution is twofold. The bedevilling fact of our electronic age is if you need one password, you need 30, unless you prefer to live under a rock using flint and tinder to light a fire and cook your breakfast.

The other swinging neck of the multi-headed lizard is that while you have concocted sentence-based passwords for every bank account, device, newsletter and shopping website you have ever used, the security chaps then tell you the best thing is to change them every three months just to be safe, like. In which case, your head is so full of a constantly revolving strings of characters that you no longer have capacity remember your loved ones’ names let alone which cipher will allow you to order groceries. Something has to give. According Motorola executive Regina Dugan, the average user types in a password up to 39 times a day, taking 2.3 seconds every time they do so.

My own dilemma was laid bare last week at a drinks party when my handbag, set on top of a ledge, tipped its contents. Aside from the usual mysteries hidden in the depths of a woman’s reticule, out spewed what might have been the innards of an advanced robot – blinking electronic devices, snaking wires and plugs. I have two laptops, two smartphones and any number of networks, newsfeeds, social websites and online food retailers they access, all of which require a godforsaken password.

I have a system, of course. Not that I will let you in on the secret, for reasons that should be obvious. But with the recent advent of a new laptop and a whole new level of security measures, my neat little schema is getting stretched to breaking point. There are technological solutions to this electronic predicament. Some of them are very clever. The most radical of these though, I find chilling.

A California company has devised a pill that you swallow which contains a chip that interacts with your devices. Your body, in essence becomes your password.

The researchers are also considering electronic tattoos.

Oh brave new world, indeed. Where is that rock I will live under?