A man wrote that he still did not understand why for 20 years he used “Troop 64” for his password since it was a reference to a summer camp from his youth where a counselor molested him and a dozen other boys.
“Arafat” was the password of a woman who worked at an Orthodox Jewish law firm. She figured it was the last thing anyone would guess.
Others: the name of a family dog that was killed by an errant driver, the model of his first handgun, the brand of a drum set lost when a childhood home burned down, the name of a chemistry teacher who inspired her career.
Few things are as universally despised as passwords: the strains they put on our memory, the endless demand to update them, their sheer number. But there is more to passwords than their annoyance. In our authorship of them, in the fact that we construct them so that we (and only we) will remember them, they take on secret lives. Things hide inside these codes, not just behind them.
Many of our passwords are suffused with metaphor, mischief, sometimes even pathos. “One-word poems” is how someone described them to me. “Homemade prompts for mindful moments.” Often they have rich back-stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — they are like chotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything — scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact, and expressive.
These ‘‘keepsake passwords,’’ as I like to call them, were the focus of a recent story I wrote in The New York Times Magazine about “the secret life of passwords.” There was the former prisoner whose password included what used to be his inmate identification number (“a reminder not to go back,” he explained); the fallen-away Catholic whose passwords incorporated the Virgin Mary (“it’s secretly calming”); the childless 45-year-old woman whose password was the name of baby boy she lost in utero (“my way of trying to keep him alive, I guess”). These passwords were a bit like clown cars. Open the door and an impossible amount came spilling out.
A friend told me about what the financial-services firm Cantor Fitzgerald went through shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He described how, not but hours after the planes struck, Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of that company, had to call the families of the dead. More than 650 Cantor Fitzgerald employees, died that day, including Mr. Lutnick’s brother.
In making those phone calls, Mr. Lutnick consoled the families. But he also, ever so gently, had to collect from these families personal trivia about their missing loved ones in order to help a team of Microsoft technicians hack the passwords of dozens of the firm’s most important accounts. My friend said I could not attribute the anecdote to him. So I called Mr. Lutnick directly. He cried while recounting the experience.
At least as surprising as the stories hidden in these passwords has been people’s willingness, eagerness even, to talk about them. Unpacking these keepsakes seems to offer a catharsis of sorts to all that is frustrating about the digital moment. With so much information flowing over us, so many gadgets to tame, so many passwords to manage, renew, and not write down, the topic soothes the ire. Whatever fulfillment others derived from the topic, I too found it oddly affirming. For me, it highlighted how humans are creative and sentimental creatures, how we invent quirky routines and clever contraptions for everyday life, how we beautify even our shackles.
These are the very passwords that security experts tell us not to make because they are the easiest to crack. And yet, so many people have them. This defiance intrigued me. So, too, did broader questions about whether there might actually be a certain deeper logic to the irrationality, patterns in the misbehavior or a reason that we so often do what the experts say not to.
Still, I’m unsure how much I think keepsake passwords actually reveal about a person. Does being secret make something truer or more candid? “Creating them is like a game of word association — with no starting word,” Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard who studies the Internet, told me. Helen Petrie, a British psychologist and professor of human/computer interaction at City University in London, described passwords as “a 21st-century Rorschach inkblot test.”
My view is that while they may not bare our souls, these passwords do represent pages, or perhaps pieces of pages, torn from our mental diaries. That has been enough for me to want to keep collecting them. That is also why I am asking people to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the stories behind their passwords. I don’t want to know your current passwords. I am, however, interested to hear the vignettes locked inside your old passwords, and the logic that makes these passwords memorable and personal.