CHICAGO -- Good thing she doesn’t need a password to get into heaven. That’s what Donna Spinner often mutters when she tries to remember the growing list of letter-number-and-symbol codes she’s had to create to access her various online accounts.
"At my age, it just gets too confusing," says the 72-year-old grandmother who lives outside Decatur, Ill.
But this is far from just a senior moment. Frustration over passwords is as common across the age brackets as the little reminder notes on which people often write them.
"We are in the midst of an era I call the ‘tyranny of the password,’ " says Thomas Way, a computer science professor at Villanova University.
"We’re due for a revolution."
One could argue that the revolution is already well underway, with passwords destined to go the way of the floppy disc and dial-up Internet. Already, there are multiple services that generate and store your passwords so you don’t have to remember them. Beyond that, biometric technology is emerging, using thumbprints and face recognition to help us get into our accounts and our devices. Some new iPhones use the technology, for instance, as do a few retailers, whose employees log into work computers with a touch of the hand.
Still, many people cling to the password, the devil we know -- even though the passwords we end up creating, the ones we CAN remember, often aren’t very secure at all.
Bill Lidinsky, director of security and forensics at the School of Applied Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has seen it all -- and often demonstrates in his college classes just how easy it is to use readily available software to figure out many passwords.
"I crack my students’ passwords all the time," Lidinsky says, "sometimes in seconds."
Even so, a good password doesn’t necessarily have to be maddeningly complicated, says Keith Palmgren, a cybersecurity expert in Texas.
"Whoever coined the phrase ‘complex password’ did us a disservice," says Palmgren, an instructor at the SANS Institute, a research and education organization that focuses on high-tech security.
He’s teaching a course on passwords to other tech professionals later this summer and plans to tell them that the focus should be on unpredictability and length -- the more characters, the better.
But it doesn’t have to be something you can’t remember. If a site allows long passwords and special characters, Palmgren suggests using an entire sentence as a password, including spaces and punctuation, if possible: "This sentence is an example."
He also suggests plugging in various types of passwords on a website developed by California-based Gibson Research Corp. to see how long it could take to crack each type of password: https://www.grc.com/haystack.htm.
According to the site, it could take centuries to uncover some passwords, but seconds for others.
Lidinsky recommends using a "simple mental algorithm," including those that use a space, if a site allows that. As an example, he says one might try "Ama95 zon" for an Amazon account, and "Yah95 oo" for a Yahoo! account, and so on. (But choose your own combination.)
There are other ways around the password headache.
Some people have taken to using password generators, which create and store passwords for various sites you use. Generally, all the user has to remember is a master password to unlock a generator program and then it plugs in the passwords to whichever account is being used. There are numerous password managers like this, including LastPass and Dashlane and 1Password.