Say the secret words

By Chuck Sigars | Mar 21, 2012

I’ve made reservations, after having some, and so next month I head for Arizona and a college reunion, two months after a trip to Austin. I’m now Travelin’ Man.

I could argue that leaving town for a homebody like me is therapeutic, but I’m not sure who would take the opposite side. My son doesn’t seem to mind. My wife gets a gleam in her eye, probably out of anticipation for me but, hey, responsibility is a complicated creature. Sometimes knowing your spouse is somebody else’s problem for a few days can relax a person.

And for the first time in decades, I traveled out of town without my laptop. I tend to be a light packer anyway, haven’t checked luggage in years, but I’ve always carried my computer. It’s how I make a living.

Clothes can be washed, shampoo stolen, a toothbrush borrowed when nobody’s looking, but I need my computer. I’ve written columns from a variety of hotels and even once from my daughter’s dorm room.

It was a short trip to Texas, though, and maybe I’ve learned how to divest when I travel.

Being without it, though, was like leaving a teenager alone for the weekend; the mind wonders. I’m never worried about my data: I back up religiously and most of that is automated, anyway.

It’s the other stuff. The financial stuff, mostly, but also the part of my personality that lives online, email and social media. Even with me gone, there’s usually always someone in the house, often a 6 foot 3 inch, 250-pound young man who should be threatening to no one but might slow up an intruder just by size intimidation (or talking to them nonstop about “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” Been there).

But it could happen, and it was important that I imagined someone stealing my laptop. I mean, someone stole my lawnmower once.

And a few weeks ago my wife, hurrying and carrying a lot of books as she was leaving work, placed her laptop bag down in the parking lot and neglected to pick it up again. It was quickly retrieved and taken to her office by a good Samaritan, no data harm done (it did seem to have been run over, though), but it got me thinking.

I suspect most of us use computers, to one degree or another. And some of those degrees are important to us, and maybe not as protected as they ought to be.

I’m talking about passwords. Even in the 21st century, when our lives are electronic and our stuff is encrypted from the get-go, people who know about such things routinely point out that among the most common passwords is “Password.” Or “123456.” The human capacity for cleverness is overrated.

And many people tend to use the same password for every site, easy to remember but problematic if one of them is compromised or otherwise hacked. Have you seen dominos fall? Think of dominos.

Forget the movies, too, where some hacker or detective or nosy neighbor tries to guess your password, plugging in birthdays and names of pets. What’s far more likely is that this is a computer program, an algorithm, trying out combinations faster than you can get to the airport on a smooth travel day. Much faster.

And even if you think you’re smarter than the average computer-literate bear, if your password is the name of your childhood dog, say, and that dog was not named &D4%xdR9!, you might have a problem.

The conventional wisdom (“conventional” referring to tech people, not the guy who uses “123456”) is evolving on passwords. It used to be this: The best password is the one you don’t know or remember. That still applies and is a good idea, but it gets even better (and safer) when you start thinking in terms of passphrase.

Experts say a passphrase using four common but unrelated words (e.g., dog, light, battery, vase), particularly with spaces in between, can take a program literally centuries to crack, by which time you’ve probably changed it.

Think of it as “The Matrix,” maybe. We are fighting the machines. The machines will never stop trying. The machines will, given enough time, win. We just want it to be a long time before they do, time measured in millennia, and that’s pretty easy to do.

So consider this a public service announcement from a guy heavily invested in a digital life. Think carefully about your passwords. Change them, make them difficult, use different ones. Computers get cheaper every week, and aren’t hard to replace. Your personal information is, as the commercial says, priceless. Then you can leave your laptop at home, knowing it’s secure.

Unless someone runs over it, which never occurred to me before, but now has. Weird. Maybe I’ll take it on my next trip, just in case. And then my secrets will be safe with me.

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