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And the Password Is…

July 5, 2004

A lucky few of you have probably never had to create a username and password to use a website. Your life is simplified by that alone.

You might even be in the camp that buys everything with cash; you might live off the grid by generating your own power. These approaches may not be simpler, but they provide a certain kind of security through independence.

If you’re “connected,” you need security, too, to balance the apparent ease with which you can transact personal business that was once formal and involved face-to-face meetings — in other words, personal business that required community.

Online commerce requires security, and that usually involves account names and passwords. But people forget passwords all the time. Passwords are one Achilles heel of security, but we use them nonetheless. Will we gladly give them up when biometrics are perfected (such as digital reading of fingerprints or retinal scans)?

Logging in to an account creates the requirement to log out. This is the other Achilles heel. At the library, we find abandoned public computers that are still logged in to someone’s account. Usually, just email accounts are left open; occasionally, it’s something else, leaving private information in public.

Recently, I wanted to order books for the library from a publisher online. I couldn’t simply create a “shopping cart,” fill it, and place the order with a credit card.

First, I had to create an account. They wanted a lot of information. I sighed and started typing until I reached the password section. Like many sites, this one has you pick a question to which you provide a “secret” answer. This question is then used if you forget your password.

But I was stuck. I couldn’t answer any of the five questions. I mean, I could make something up, but the purpose of these questions is to provide easily recalled personal information as a substitute for the easily forgotten password.

“What is your pet’s name?” I don’t have a pet. My household is full of pets, but none are mine, and I often struggle with their names.

“What is your favorite color?” At one point in my life, it was green. Then blue. Then “Celeste,” the odd blue-green color on my Bianchi bicycle. Now, I don’t know.

Who is your all-time favorite celebrity? Good heavens.

What is your favorite sports team? I almost put the Broncos, because I thought I might remember to try this answer if needed.

Who was your childhood hero? I don’t recall. At one point, it might have been Tom Swift. Or Tom Swift, Jr. At another point, probably Frodo or Aragorn, when I read “Lord of the Rings” continuously for a couple of years.

My favorite anti-hero, though, is Tyrone Slothrop from the novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.” If I used him, I would have to recall that I’d been witty and sarcastic if the question ever arose.

I thought of choosing a default hero for all time, someone like Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton, whom I could use in these circumstances. America’s founding fathers were remarkable people.

But subtle questions presented themselves, such as whose Federalist papers to prefer: Hamilton’s or Madison’s? Was Jefferson being magnanimous when he offered his library to replace the burned Library of Congress, or was he just trying to clean house?

I gave up, called the 800 number, and placed the order with a nice, friendly man who was happy to send our books on account.

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