Turns out passwords are more than just
random characters

By Ian Urbina


May 7 is World Password Day. To learn more about passwords, and simplifying the passwords in your life, go to PasswordDay.org

On Nov. 20, 2014, The New York Times Magazine published “The Secret Life of Passwords.” It was an examination of the humanity that often hides in a simple string of characters, and a reflection on why we imbue these codes with meaning when told not to. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, an ode to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — there was something captivating, inspiring even, in these tchotchkes of our inner lives.

In writing that article, I mined for passwords every chance I got: sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, riding Amtrak, filling that awkward lull during Thanksgiving dinner with in-laws. I interviewed several hundred people, most of them strangers. A surprising number were willing to take a broad leap of faith and give me not just the codes that they are never supposed to reveal, but also the emotional secret inside that makes these codes personal.

I met for coffee with a former prisoner to discuss why his password
included what used to be his inmate identification number
(“A reminder not to go back,” he offered).

I gently pressed a woman at the park about her having discovered her son’s password (“Lamda1969”) after he committed suicide, and her realization, painfully late, that he had been gay.

I emailed with a fallen-away Catholic who told me how his passwords incorporated the Virgin Mary (“It’s secretly calming,” he confessed).

Stuck on a tarmac, I sat next to a childless 45-year-old woman who eventually revealed to me that her password was the name of the baby boy she lost in utero (“My way of trying to keep him alive, I guess,” she said).

Entrancing in their own right, these gems also hinted at something larger: how humans are creative and sentimental creatures, what drives us to quirky routines, and why we turn shackles into art. The New York Times Magazine and Medium ran stories on the topic.

Readers began offering their own backstories behind their old passwords, 15 of which are below:

The passwords “scaryspider” left, and “1WordBrandon,” right.
  • Madison Romero always followed the rules. Then he decided to do something unexpected: buy a tarantula to frighten his friends. It didn’t work. They were fascinated instead. A humorous failure, it became his password: “scaryspider.”
  • “My marriage is failing. I would like it to succeed,” wrote Sadie Welsh. “Amazing how people simply stop talking.” Her password, “1WordBrandon,” is a reminder, “to say something to my husband at least once a day.”
The password “StrongMe,” (left) and “Waganaki” (right).
  • Inspired by the notion that our passwords, typed repeatedly, can help motivate and inspire, Shelly Bredau chose the password “StrongMe” to lift her morale after her 20-year marriage ended in unexpected divorce, but she had to change it because she kept entering “StrangeMe.” “Strange new arrangements, strange new lawyers, strange legalities.”
  • Joy Chen’s password: the name of a character from a novel she started writing and set aside but never fully abandoned: “Once an idea is created, it never really stops existing.”
  • Tim, who asked that his last name not be revealed, still wonders why he used “Waganaki,” the youth summer camp where he was sexually abused and other references to that summer in his passwords. “I’m not sure why I tortured myself even more with these passwords,” he wrote. “Maybe because for decades I could never discuss it.”
The password “1132859” (left), and “Iwillmisspeggy4ever” (right).
  • Nestor L. Reyes’s password was his M-16’s serial number, 1132859. Training in the 82nd Airborne, he slept, ate chow, and parachuted with it. “Lovely and deadly. Unlike people, it never let me down,” he said.
  • Iwillmisspeggy4ever” Floyd Chaffee’s wife was killed in a tractor-trailer accident in 2001. His password helps him “stay connected to what was lost.”
The password “10yearstogo,” (left), “Iamgay” (center) and “Toomuchbakingsodamakesyourcakeabitfizzy” (right).
  • Inside her password, “10yearstogo,” is a promise she made to herself years ago to finish college by the age of 23. Melisa Fernando is 22 now. She has one year before she graduates.
  • WhyDoTheDogsWakeMeOnSundays,” and “Toomuchbakingsodamakesyourcakeabitfizzy”: Darren Pauli’s old passwords, chosen to make his wife laugh when he shared them with her.
  • A once-closeted gay man in Bombay, Aditya Joshi for years used “Iamgay” as his password. With each typing, he said, “my confidence about myself grew by a tiny bit.”
The password “sushifreak1308” (left), and “MilK071120” (right).
  • Vivian Tan Bo Yee’s password, “sushifreak1308,” combined the nickname her friends gave her for her favorite food and the date her parents separated (Aug. 13). “Comfort in things that once scarred us.”
  • When Rosemary Kuropat was growing up, vanity license plates were unaffordable. Her password, “MilK071120,” honored her single mother (Mil K.; birthday: 7/11/20) and the vanity plate her mother said she would buy if ever she had the money.
The password “eccehomo,” (left), “bettersummer2014” (center) and “Dillinger” (right).
  • David Agudelo Restrepo’s password, “eccehomo,” refers to Nietzsche’s final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, which helped him overcome his obsessive disorder. It reminds: “I’m just another man, nothing else, nothing more.”
  • After a disastrous summer of break-ups and a break-in, Allison Sherry chose “bettersummer2014” for her password. “Throwing a deep wish into my personal cyber ether.” It worked.
  • In sixth grade, Dorothy Pippin carried her violin to school and back. Her nickname (later her password) was “Dillinger,” a reference to the mobster who carried his Tommy gun in a violin case. “Fun times in my childhood.”

The reporting project continues. If you have password stories to share, please email me at urbina@nytimes.com, follow me on Twitter at @ian_urbina, or respond below.

Illustrations by Harrison Freeman