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The computer password tests the memory

Time to break into her bank account again. If only Christie Gold can produce the password.

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Gold, an English teacher at Tampa's Freedom High, sits at one of the school computers after class, manifesting positive password karma. For some online accounts, she types in aurous. Cute, in an English teachery kind of way, since that's a fancy word for golden and since most hackers aren't likely to have boned up on their Latin cognates. Sometimes, she tries crg1966, using her initials and birth year. Or else corgi, in honor of her dog Fred. Or flamby, the name of her big red horse. If those don't work, she tries corgi8. Or flamby8.

"Eight is my favorite number," says Gold.

Why 8? Because as a tot, young Christie got it into her head that turning 8 would be the greatest, which it was, thanks to Mrs. Legge, her luminous third-grade teacher. Gold's four-digit code for her voice mail? 8888. Love you, Mrs. Legge!

The online bank account. Yes. Actually, it's a credit union. Gold needs to check her balance, such as it is, and make sure nothing's about to bounce. But first she has to produce yet another code. She can't resort to any of her standard sign-ons or passwords, because the credit union insists on entry through a seven-digit number. Wonderful.

The pressure's on. This site, extra strict, allows only one try before security measures kick in.

Gold has the number memorized. But she's typing fast, and she grazes a 9 when she means to hit a 0.

Denied.

• • •

Note to readers: Christie Gold shared her passwords cheerfully, promising she would change them before this story appeared. Apologies to Fred and Flamby.

• • •

In password nation, the things we love make us vulnerable.

We rely on passwords to pay our mortgages, find a doctor, order movies, ogle naked women or men, check on our retirement funds, watch videos of our brother's gorgeous new baby girl. Some of us even have a special code just to order pizza.

Nearly every need and want and whim demands another password. Soon it's all too much. So we choose predictable totems of our personalities — details of adoration and obsession, numbers freighted with childhood meaning, fragments from the mosaic of ourselves.

We can't resist declaring ourselves, telling our life stories over and over to whoever is listening out there in cyberspace. We do it because we're human and are willing to overlook that we are opening ourselves to thievery and malice and ruin.

• • •

Craig Neuman thinks he has found the right system — a collection of rock 'n' roll passwords laden with deliciously subversive memories and deployed in a pattern he believes no one is likely to crack.

"Basically," he says, "I use concerts and years."

Neuman, 44, is a regional marketing manager at the Maddux Business Report, a magazine based in St. Petersburg. But inside he remains the 14-year-old with long hair who slipped out one night in 1977 against his father's wishes to see Led Zeppelin invade Tampa Stadium. The concert, his first, hit him like a revelation — Jimmy Page wielding his guitar, the glistening women in the audience, the riot that erupted when the show was cut short due to a downpour.

Neuman's first password:

lzeppelin77

He has been to more than a hundred shows since and has saved all his ticket stubs. Every month, he picks another stub, another password, another set of associations. Typing acooper86 summons the night he saw Alice Cooper bring a guillotine onstage at the Sun Dome to stage his own faux execution. Neuman can still see the blade dropping and then Alice, his neck in the chopping block, holding up what appeared to be his own severed head.

Beautiful.

• • •

Even in elementary school, students sometimes juggle more than a dozen passwords. Kirby Bright, a fifth-grader at Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo, uses them to do her homework, play with Webkinz, and gain entry to a site called Horseland, where she rides a virtual miniature Shetland pony named Patches.

Sometimes she uses qazxsw, following the order of letters shown on the left edge of the keyboard. Or popcorn343.

"It was just the first thing that came to my head," says Kirby.

One of her favorite passwords alludes to a friend's annoying older brother:

ihate(name deleted)

Not wanting to hurt the boy's feelings, Kirby prefers he not be identified here. Kirby's mother points out that in fact her daughter actually likes this boy and has a minicrush on him. Her password, in other words, is a virtual version of running up to a cute boy on the playground and socking him in the arm.

Even at age 10, we reveal ourselves every time we log in.

• • •

Craig Neuman has bid farewell to acooper86. No need to worry about anyone messing with Kirby Bright and her make-believe Shetland pony, either. Kirby and her mom changed her passwords after talking to us.

• • •

Christie Gold stares at the computer screen, trying not to curse at her credit union.

Two of her standby passwords used to be holsteiner, because that's Flamby's breed, and cornerstone, because she lives on a farm with that name in Wesley Chapel. A couple years ago, she got divorced and purged these favorites, not because she thought her ex would mess with her accounts but because she wanted him to know, in case he checked, that she had put those days behind her and that he was locked out forever.

Now she's the one denied entry.

Please answer the following challenge question you selected during enrollment:

What is your favorite food?

chocolate, Gold types.

No.

sushi

No.

pizza

Loser.

Gold understands why her credit union is so careful. Not long ago, someone got hold of her debit card number at a gas station and emptied nearly $1,000 from her account.

Still.

Who is your favorite author?

She's the chair of her school's English department. This should be easy. First she tries fitzgerald, then salinger. Both wrong. Then she wonders if she supplied her answer while reading someone less high-brow.

evanovich

conroy

Nothing. Maybe an essayist?

emerson

A pox on all writers.

• • •

The advice of the experts: When you're choosing a password, don't rely solely on all upper case or all lower case letters. Mix in some numbers, maybe an occasional $ or &. Don't pick the numbers of your home address or your birthday or any other specific of your personal life that can be guessed. Don't pick any words related to your kids or your wife or your car or your favorite Red Sox pitcher.

Spyros Magliveras, director of the Center for Cryptology & Information Security at Florida Atlantic University, suggests avoiding anything from the dictionary. Some hackers, he says, have programs that can run through every word.

"The whole question of how you remember passwords and so on," he says, "this is a constant problem of everyday life."

How does a cryptologist come up with passwords? Magliveras wrote his own computer program that generates random strings of numbers and letters. There's no way to remember these random strings, so he keeps them on encrypted lists. Where does he hide the lists?

"I don't want to say."

• • •

One more security question.

What street did you grow up on?

Jackpot. Christie Gold knows this. She can still see the house in Jacksonville. It's where she turned 8 and where she lived when she met Mrs. Legge.

hermitage

At once, the gates of finance open. Gold scans her account and is reassured. As she signs out, she vows to get her number right the next time.

She knows firsthand what can happen if someone hacks into her life. But she doubts she'll embrace the jumble of passwords the experts recommend.

"I could never be that random," she says. "I can't even remember one thing. I can't remember what kind of food I like."

Randomness is too hard. Too inhuman.

Staff Writer Thomas French can be reached at (727) 893-8486 or french@sptimes.com.

The computer password tests the memory 04/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 11:30am]
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