THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Voices | Mark Feeney

The password is ‘Luddite’

Why computer security has become a never-ending memory game

By Mark Feeney
December 14, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

You have your complaints about living in the computer age. I have my complaints about living in the computer age. But there’s one complaint you and I surely have in common - I bet even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have it in common - and that’s the profusion of passwords that afflicts all computer users.

I can think of at least 30 sites or programs I use that require a password. There must be several others - maybe as many? - I’ve completely forgotten about. How many do you have? Perhaps this is a new form of cyber-status symbol. Passwords are like an adult version of Pokemon cards - the more you collect, the cooler you are. They’re alphanumeric Psyducks and Squirtles.

The awful thing about computer passwords isn’t how many of them you’re required to have. It isn’t even how hard it is to keep track of them. It’s how unnecessary they are. Passwords have less to do with security than the illusion of security. PIN numbers I understand. E-mail passwords I understand. Website passwords I pretty much understand. I maybe even understand why I need a password to access The New York Times Company’s expense account system - although it’s not as if someone is going to forge an expense report in my name, since it’s going to end up in my paycheck, not the forger’s, right? But what I can’t understand is why I need to change that password every three months.

We as individuals may complain about passwords, but as a society we crave them. This craving is irrational, maddening, and quite senseless. Worse, it’s a desire for passwords simply for the sake of passwords. How to explain such a thing? Well, I think I know the reason such a password mania has long been abroad in the land. It’s because we have been indoctrinated to desire passwords: to feel their reassurance as if they were so many digital security blankets. We unconsciously hunger for the ceaseless kudzu-spread on our computer screens of alphanumeric combinations (and don’t forget to include a non-alphanumeric symbol while also being alert to case-sensitivity).

I blame Allen Ludden.

Yes, that Allen Ludden: Betty White’s third husband and, during the ’60s and ’70s, host of the daytime TV game show “Password.’’

Sting has that great putdown in “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,’’ “They all seemed like game show hosts to me.’’ Well, the ’60s and ’70s were the heyday of daytime game shows. To recall some of those shows’ hosts is to enter a realm of blazered unction and bland insinuation previously unimagined in human existence: Gene Rayburn (“The Match Game’’), Bill Cullen (“The Price Is Right’’), Garry Moore (“I’ve Got a Secret’’), Bud Collier (“Concentration’’), Monty Hall (“Let’s Make a Deal’’), Art Fleming (“Jeopardy’’ - and you thought Alex Trebek was bad), and not forgetting Allen Ludden.

Most of the shows were broadcast in the morning - while children were at school. “Password’’ was different. It was one of the few to air in the afternoon, when most network programming consisted of soap operas. Confronted with a choice between soap opera and game show, what self-respecting young baby boomer - a member of a generation whose default leisure-time activity was staring at the TV - wouldn’t watch the game show? And what kind of message would the name of that show be sending the impressionable young viewer? Finally, what’s the generation that brought about the personal computer revolution (with its manic reliance on, yes, passwords)?

You see where this is going.

It gets worse. This man Allen Ludden - this, in fact, rather sinister figure named Allen Ludden - didn’t always have that name. He was born Allen Packard Ellsworth. Now I don’t know about you, but when I see the name “Ludden’’ I’m reminded of a very different name, Luddite, as in violent opponent of all technology. Beginning to get the picture?

I’ll say this for Allen Luddite, er, Ludden: He had the decency to hint at the dark business he was up to. Encouraging an obsession with passwords among the young, he was doing his best to make computer use so frustrating, so time-consuming, so endlessly bothersome as to sow the seeds of its eventual destruction. You don’t need a game-show host to know which way the case-sensitive, alphanumeric wind is blowing.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com