Remember the old black and white war movies where so much of the action takes place in the dark? Soldiers from one side or the other stumble around a muddy camp or sneak silently into or out of a different camp until that terrible moment when they’re stopped by a burly guy in a helmet with a big rifle across his chest. His scowl does nothing to make anyone feel better as he utters the fateful words: “Halt! Who goes there?” After which, the unwitting soldiers have to come up with a password or die.
This happens to me several times a day as I try to get work and business done at my computer. Nobody’s holding a gun to my head, but they might as well be as I try to remember one password or another before I can access my bank account or get to my websketches or check to see if a story’s been accepted at Glimmer Train magazine, or get help from my internet provider when things go south. User Name and Password are the big bully gatekeepers of my life these days.
Somebody once said that computers are like Old Testament gods – lots of rules and no mercy. When it comes to passwords this is absolutely true. The rules:
1. Never write your password down. (Good luck with that.)
2. Never use the same password twice. (Ditto)
3. Use a random series of letters and numbers. (Which I can’t possibly remember unless I write it down.)
4. Never use your birthday, your kids’ birthdays, etc. (Okay, I can be more creative than that.)
5. Change your password frequently. (Are you kidding? I just memorized the first one.)
Yes, I know all these passwords are meant to protect us, our money and our privacy in the Age After Typewriters. But if that’s the case, how come hackers are able to break into systems every other day and steal thousands of identities? Shift money into their own accounts? Change websites? Who’s stopping them and shouting “Halt! Who goes there?” Huh? Who’s stopping them? That’s what I want to know. Nobody, that’s who.
Because computers are imperfect and flawed. They’re useful tools for any number of things, but machines that were originally designed to do big, complicated calculations have been redesigned by imperfect techies to do a lot of other things that were never intended in the beginning. And we’ve been lulled into believing those other things make our lives easier. Worse, we’ve been lulled into believing those other things are now necessary.
I recently opened a new bank account, and by the time I’d come up with three new passwords (which are written down but I’m not telling you where), selected two new icons, and gone through all the other rigamarole, I was too frazzled to learn how to deposit my checks at an ATM where I would use one of those new passwords. I was assured it was great to be able to deposit my checks anytime, anywhere, even at 3:00 a.m.
I’m an old-fashioned customer who is sleeping soundly at 3:00 a.m. I might go online to check my balance, but when I put a check in the bank, I want to hand it to a teller and let her give me a receipt. I want to say, “Hi, how’s your day going?” and have her smile back and say, “Great. How about yours?” I want to have a life that’s never too busy to make it more convenient to find an ATM at 1:00 a.m. where I can deposit my checks than to just run to the bank during the day and do it.
Depositing a check at 3:00 a.m. may be just the thing for another customer, but I’d be happier if the bank didn’t have a one-size-fits-all way of doing business.
This morning at 8:00 a.m. I had a call from the bank. A cheery young woman wished me a good morning and then launched into a spiel about other new services I might want sign up for. At 8:00 a.m. I was groggy, and asked that she call me back later. She will. I don’t want any more services from the bank. I have more than I can handle right now, and I know those new services will all require new passwords. I don’t want anymore passwords. I was too groggy to say this when she called, but I was not too groggy to ask where she was calling from.
My head was clear enough to ask her to please vote for Barack Obama. She chuckled and said, “You don’t like the other guy?” and then the line went dead.
Halt. Who goes there?