After the LinkedIn Hack: The One Step You Must Take Today

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One of many topics I've "meant" to get to "as soon as I have 'time' " is the various ramifications of the Gmail hacking episode my wife endured last year, in which six years' worth of her correspondence and life-records disappeared. I chronicled it originally in the magazine, and ran a large number of follow-ups. Here's a sample.

There are lots of new twists  I've meant to go into, at some point: "strong" versus "weak" passwords, Gmail versus other online services, the pluses and minuses of online password utilities (I use and like LastPass), Google's new "state-sponsored hacking attempt" warnings, and on through a very long list.

For now, here is the single most important thing you must do today, if you're concerned about these hacking stories -- as you should be.

Today's Must-Do List: Make sure that any account that matters to you has its own password.

For me that means, as a minimum: email, banking, credit cards, medical info, investment accounts, Twitter, Facebook. The standard should be: anything that would cause you loss, embarrassment, inconvenience, harm, or worry, must have its own password. If it doesn't, you're asking for it to be hacked.

I don't care that my local OpenTable account (for example) has a weak password I've used elsewhere. No harm, no foul if it gets hacked. It's different with banking, email, etc.

It matters much less that each "this account matters" password is "strong" or "weak" than that it meets these two standards:

   - You cannot be using it for any other online account; and
   - You cannot ever have used it for any other account.

I quoted a Google official (and friend) on the logic behind this step in my original story:

"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 hacking of my wife's email account almost certainly happened because she had used that same password somewhere else. There are lots more angles here, but let's save them for later. For now, make sure that any account that matters to you has its unique password.

You're welcome. (Note: I did this after having been out all day, and hadn't yet seen Rebecca Greenfield's very good Atlantic Wire item to similar effect.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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