You know — those intricate combinations of letters, numbers or symbols that let you access your most sensitive information, from your retirement savings account to your beloved Facebook page? (Or maybe not so intricate: We're looking at you, password123!)
A ubiquitous part of our culture and daily lives, passwords can unlock more than mere Web pages: They also reveal who we are and what we value.
What might your passwords say about you? Check out these seven possibilities.
1. You're a nature lover
Gordon Mathieson, 69, former director of information technology at Yale School of Medicine and an AARP volunteer in Massachusetts, changes his password with each turn of the seasons. He uses an algorithm that blends letters or numbers with words and phrases inspired by the outdoors.
"It combines my two loves — nature and logic," Mathieson says.
2. You think outside the box
Growing up, Ann,* 60, of Portsmouth, N.H., was an exchange student in Denmark. So when it comes to passwords, she often turns to the Danish language, using such things as town names, popular phrases — even curse words (which likewise come in handy when she forgets a password).
"Comparatively few people in the world speak Danish," Ann says, "so I thought my passwords would be hard to crack unless someone speaks the language or knows me. What does that say about me? That I value privacy and that I love Denmark. And luckily, computers [with an English language setting] are not offended by swear words in another language."
3. You have furry friends
A lifelong animal lover, Susan,* 65, of New Haven, Conn., used to keep all her passwords written on Rolodex cards. Recently she transferred them to a leather-bound notebook.
"Most of my passwords have to do with our pets," she says. "I use combinations of capital and lowercase letters, intersperse numbers, and include pets who have passed away and how long they lived." Susan says she recalls each pet fondly while typing its name.
4. You've gotten around
After reading a story on password security, Tom,* a 68-year-old New York attorney, decided to base all his passwords on the street addresses of places he had lived. "I've lived at eight different addresses over the course of my life," he says, "and I'm probably the only person who remembers all of them."
The one he uses most frequently? The address of his childhood home: "Brings back happy memories," he says.
5. You're adventurous
Mary,* 77, of Brookline, Mass., has 20 different passwords. The retired administrative assistant has traveled for decades and draws password inspiration from her worldly adventures. There was that trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a visit to see her niece in the South Pacific and a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth. She has journeyed to nearly 40 countries so far.
"I love folding my travels into my passwords." Mary says, "because they're so much a part of me."
6. You know what matters in your life
Martha,* 58, of Boston, is aware that using a single password invites disaster, so she uses a different one for each of her accounts — and keeps them all written down on a piece of paper in her briefcase. "My passwords reflect the things I think about most often: my kids, my granddaughter and my martial arts background," she says.
7. You search for higher purpose
Barbara,* 66, a psychologist in Los Angeles, finds remembering her countless passwords tedious and challenging. About five years ago, she therefore began using some of them for a deeper purpose.
"I decided, especially in terms of the password I need to log in to my computer at work — which I use all the time — that I would make my password a kind of mantra," she says. "When I need to concentrate on finding time to relax, I work that word into my password. That forces it to become top of mind when I log on in the morning." Adds Barbara: "I don't dread changing my password anymore — it's like I'm using it for another purpose."
To read more about passwords and the clues they offer, check out, "The Secret Life of Passwords," an in-depth story on the topic by Ian Urbina in the New York Times Magazine. Urbina calls them "keepsake passwords" because they are imbued with personal meaning and people tend to hold on to them over time.
*Sorry, hackers — these names have been changed.
Michelle Cerulli is a writer living in Brookline, Mass.
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