The Secret Life of Passwords

Who knew passwords could conjure such emotion?

We despise them – yet we imbue them with our hopes and dreams, our dearest memories, our deepest motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — “keepsake passwords.”

They derive from anything: scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages.

Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, keepsake passwords tend to be intimate, compact and expressive:

➡️​ The former prisoner whose password includes what used to be his inmate identification number (“a reminder not to go back”);

➡️​ The fallen-away Catholic whose passwords incorporate the Virgin Mary (“it’s secretly calming”);

➡️​ The childless 45-year-old whose password is the name of the baby boy she lost in utero (“my way of trying to keep him alive, I guess”)

➡️​ A young person whose password was “philosophy,” because, he said, several years earlier, when he created it, he took secret pride in knowing the meaning of a concept that big.

➡️​ A competitive runner, told me that she often used “16:59” — her target time for the 5,000 meters in track

➡️​ Because his office computer demanded that he change his password every 30 days, Mr. Estrella detailed one goal after another: “Quit@smoking4ever” (successful); “Save4trip@thailand” (successful); Eat2@day” (“it never worked, I’m still fat,” Estrella wrote); “Facetime2mom@sunday” (“it worked,” he said, “I’ve started talking with my mom every week now”)

➡️​ swim2659nomore” — a reference to a career-ending shoulder injury in 2008

➡️​ One person we interviewed often included “1060” in his passwords. This was his SAT score, he explained. He liked reminding himself of it, he said, because he took a certain private satisfaction in how far he had come in life in spite of his mediocre showing on the standardized test.

➡️​ The name of a small-city high school, which conjured a past happiness, time spent with his parents and the place that shaped his work ethic and his ethnic identity. “It’s a pretty memory,” he said, sotto voce.

Like an intimate, highly personal tattoo, who knew people imbued passwords with such depth and feeling?

November 23, 2014, the New York Times Sunday Magazine

Links below to the original NYT Magazine article, behind a paywall, and to a short video, available to the public. Two very different mothers’ approaches to their child’s passwords and privacy.

Original NYT Magazine story, behind paywall: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/19/magazine/the-secret-life-of-passwords.html

Short video, available to the public. Two very different mothers’ approaches to their child’s passwords and privacy: https://www.nytimes.com/video/magazine/100000003243289/the-secret-life-of-passwords.html

— Anthony Collette

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