The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay: In search of the lost password

“Every time I have to change my password for various devices, I feel like Columbus setting out on a dark and perilous journey. Usually I take great care to write down the password — in a notebook. I then forget where I put the notebook.”
That time Michael Enright delivered a video monologue from his office — with his passwords (since changed) listed behind him in plain view. (Bria John/CBC)

The name tag on the young woman behind the counter said her name was Darla. She was very polite. And helpful.

She asked me: "What is your favourite holiday meal?"

"Turkey," I replied.

"Oops," said Darla. "It says wrong answer. It says the account has been disabled."

I was trying to get into an old account to prepare for income tax season. Apparently my choice of turkey as the favourite holiday meal was not the same  answer as the one I had given when I opened the account.

I may have said then that my favourite holiday meal was chicken kasha. Or boiled yak liver. If I can't  remember where I put my glasses this morning, how am I supposed to remember a favourite meal from long ago?

But of course the meal was not the point. It was a security question. And without the right security password, the information would stay uncontaminated by my accountant's hands.

Darla spent the next 20 minutes trying to get into the account while I plied away at the New York Times crossword puzzle.

I have never gotten the hang of passwords. I've never given them the serious thought they apparently demand.

To me they are a complete nuisance — like flossing.

Every time I have to change my password for various devices, I feel like Columbus setting out on a dark and perilous journey.

Usually I take great care to write down the password — in a notebook. I then forget where I put the notebook.

We live in fear of losing touch with our passwords. I have a friend who has all his passwords written down in a book which, if he ever lost it, would be a catastrophe.

Sometimes I will tell a trusted friend my password, in the vain hope she will remember it.

Here at the CBC, which is in the vanguard of the digital world, they have developed for me an intricate three-stage password security system.

It is brilliant. Not only does it keep out the Russians, it quite often keeps me out. I have to call the tech people and in a whiny voice tell them I've lost my password. Again.

Dealing with passwords can get me into a lot of trouble.

Last year, I meticulously copied out my various passwords and pinned them to the wall over my computer.

I later delivered a monologue to a video camera which was later posted on our website.

A listener kindly wrote in to point out that she could read my passwords over my shoulder in the video shot.

My first experience with a password was in the dim days of youth when my friends and I took over an abandoned garage up a laneway for our gang's club house.

We would while away the hours experimenting with tobacco substances and looking at raunchy magazines like Nature Volleyball.

We had a password. It was Shazam. From an old movie. It was meant to keep outsiders out. And parents, come to that.

Fernando "Corby" Corbató is credited with inventing the modern computer password. (Jason Dorfman/Wikimedia Commons)
The man to blame for password paranoia is Fernando "Corby" Corbató, a California-born computer genius who is credited, if that's the word, with inventing the first computer password.

He is also the author of  "A calculation of the energy bands of the graphite crystal by means of the tight-binding method."

You can see where he's coming from.

But apparently Mr. Corbató is having a re-think — a reboot if you will — about passwords.

He says his invention has turned into "a kind of nightmare."

Says he: "I don't think anybody can possibly remember all the passwords that they are issued or set up."

Thanks a bunch, Corby. Bit late, aren't you?

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay.