Passwords Aren't the Problem. You Are.


It’s abundantly clear that we are living in an era of profound data insecurity.

When you start your first day at Quartz, you get peppered with passwords.

There’s a password to log into your new Mac, which you are immediately prompted to change once you’re up-and-running. The new password allows you log into your email. Once there, you are invited to join our password protected—with double-authentication—CMS. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say your first Quartz workday consists largely of password management.

I had that in mind, as I helped a new hire settle in on Monday. So, I urged him—repeatedly—to take a moment and sign-up for a password client that I had used to help me beat my own long-standing struggle with password amnesia: LastPass. For months, the service, which essentially creates an encrypted vault of all your passwords and protects it with a master password, had made my life much better.

Until Tuesday morning. That’s when I received an opened an from LastPass indicating that the service had been compromised, and that some sensitive information—including email addresses, password reminders—had been taken. For its part, LastPass says its “vaults” where users keep their passwords to various sites and applications were not compromised.

“So no data stored in your vault is at risk,” officials said. But I still had to explain this to the guy I had convinced to use it less than 24 hours before.

recent survey commissioned by Telesign—a company that sells two-step verification technology—found that roughly 70% of 2,000 people in the UK and US they surveyed don’t trust that their password will protect them. They shouldn’t. After all, it’s abundantly clear that we are living in an era of profound data insecurity.

I mean, Russian hackers read President Obama’s unclassified email. And just to review, over the last few months alone we’ve learned that hackers have breached not only the White House, the but the IRS and the Federal government’s office of personnel management, where they perused—among other things—the form people fill out as they apply for security clearances.

What’s more, today we learned that the FBI is investigating front office officials from the St. Louis Cardinals in connection with hacking into the Houston Astros’ “baseball operations database.” The New York Times reports:

Investigators believe Cardinals officials, concerned that [former Cardinals executive, and current Astros general manager Jeff] Luhnow had taken their idea[s] and proprietary baseball information to the Astros, examined a master list of passwords used by Mr. Luhnow and the other officials who had joined the Astros when they worked for the Cardinals. The Cardinals officials are believed to have used those passwords to gain access to the Astros’ network, law enforcement officials said.

There’s a reason why hackers—whether they be associated Red China or the St. Louis red birds—aim for passwords. Long ago, we reached the human limits of our ability to remember them. The human mind has pretty strict limitations on remembering long sequences numbers and letters. (Essentially it’s about seven items, plus or minus two.) And they’re best remembered when they’re in familiar chunks, you know, like letters in words. This is why consumers have an average of 24 online accounts, but only about six unique passwords, according to the Telesign study.

In other words, passwords aren’t the problem. We are.

And humans will remain the problem until we get to the post-password era.

Over the next few years we’ll increasingly be authenticating ourselves not with passwords, but with our fingerprints, faces, irises, retinas, palm-prints and speech patterns. But humanity still presents profound engineering problem.

“Passwords or tokens are easy to change while it is compromised. But, biometric traits are inherent and fixed forever, that is, the biometric data is irrevocable,” wrote academics in a paper published in April.

If you think the resetting your password is a pain, trying resetting your fingerprint.

Engineers are addressing the problem, coming up technologies that enable cancelable crypto-versions of our biometric data that can be reset. But I can’t help but be overcome by the suspicion that that the digital world might just work a lot better if it didn’t have to put up with all these people.

(Image via kpatyhka/