Fix your terrible, insecure passwords in five minutes.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 24 2009 7:05 AM

Fix Your Terrible, Insecure Passwords in Five Minutes

A foolproof technique to secure your computer, e-mail, and bank account.

(Continued from Page 1)

Start with an original but memorable phrase. For this exercise, let's use these two sentences: I like to eat bagels at the airport and My first Cadillac was a real lemon so I bought a Toyota. The phrase can have something to do with your life or it can be a random collection of words—just make sure it's something you can remember. That's the key: Because a mnemonic is easy to remember, you don't have to write it down anywhere. (If you can't remember it without writing it down, it's not a good mnemonic.) This reduces the chance that someone will guess it if he gets into your computer or your e-mail. What's more, a relatively simple mnemonic can be turned into a fanatically difficult password.

Which brings us to Step 2: Turn your phrase into an acronym. Be sure to use some numbers and symbols and capital letters, too. I like to eat bagels at the airport becomes Ilteb@ta, and My first Cadillac was a real lemon so I bought a Toyota is M1stCwarlsIbaT.

Advertisement

That's it—you're done. These mnemonic passwords are hard to forget, but they contain no guessable English words. You can even create pass phrases for specific sites that are coded with a hint about their purpose. A sentence like It's 20 degrees in February, so I use Gmail lets you set a new Gmail password every month and still never forget it: i90diSsIuG for September, i30diMsIuG for March, etc. (These aren't realistic temperatures; they're the month-number multiplied by 10.)

How many different such passwords do you need? Four or five at most. You don't have to keep unique passwords for every single site you visit—Thompson says it's perfectly OK to repeat passwords on sites that don't need to be kept very secure. For instance, I can use the same password for my accounts at the New York Times, the New Republic, The New Yorker, and other online magazines, because it won't hurt me too much if someone breaks into those. (My mnemonic is, I like to read snooty publications quite often.) You should probably use different passwords for each your social networking accounts—someone can do real damage by breaking into your Facebook or Twitter, so you want to keep them distinct—but you can still come up with a single systematic mnemonic to protect them: Twitter is my second favorite social networking site, MySpace is my third favorite social networking site, etc. Reserve your strongest, most distinct passwords for the few very important services that, if cracked, could do the most damage—your bank account, your computer, and most of all your e-mail, which often contains the keys to everything else in your life.

To be sure, this is more of a hassle than what you're doing now—but what you're doing now is going to come back to bite you. These days, we're all dishing personal information all the time; you may think that your password is totally unguessable, but your Facebook makes clear that you're a huge U2 fan and you graduated from college in 2000. Achtung2000, eh? Just go ahead and make some new passwords right now. Trust me, you'll feel better.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Crowds March in 160 Countries to Demand Action on Climate Change

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Americans' Inexplicable Aversion to the 1990s
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.