The Art of the Password

For those who have not, I implore you to check out this Fallows piece on e-mail hacking. Here's your first line of defense:


• Choose a long, familiar-to-you sequence of ordinary words, with spaces between them as in an ordinary sentence, which more and more sites now allow. "Lake Winnebago is deep and chilly," for instance. Or "my favorite packer is not brett favre." You could remember a phrase like that, but a hacker's computer, which couldn't tell spaces from characters, would see only one forbiddingly long password sequence. 

• Choose a shorter sequence of words that are not "real" English words. I once lived in a Ghanaian village called Assin Fosu. I can remember its name easily, but it would be hard to guess. Even harder if I added numbers or characters. 

• Choose a truly obscure, gibberish password--"V*!amYEg5M5!3R" is one I generated just now with the LastPass system, and you're welcome to it--and then find a way to store it. Having it written down in your wallet is one, though the paper it's on shouldn't say "Passwords" at the top. The approach I prefer, and use for some passwords, is to entrust them to online managers like LastPass or RoboForm. 

Even if their corporate sites were hacked, that wouldn't reveal all your passwords, since the programs work by storing part of the encoding information in the cloud and part on your own machine. At a minimum, any step up from "password," "123456," or your own birthday is worthwhile. 

Finally, use different passwords. Not hundreds of different ones, for the hundreds of different places that require logins of some kind. The guide should be: any site that matters needs its own password--one you don't currently use for any other site, and that you have never used anywhere else. 

"Using an important password anywhere else is just like mailing your house key to anyone who might be making a delivery," Michael Jones of Google said. "If you use your password in two places, it is not a valid password."

The story scared the hell out of me. I've redone all my passwords, and I just signed up for gmail's two-step verification process. Not to give it all away, but Jim's wife, Deb, basically had all her e-mail deleted by a hacker.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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