AuthentificationCyberCrimeSecuritySecurity Management

Tales In Tech History: The Password

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

To some the password is the bane of modern day life, to others an absolute necessity to safeguard our digital world

Passwords have become a modern day burden for many people, as our life and all its associated services increasingly migrates to an online world.

The password (usually a word or string of characters to authenticate a user’s identity), has meant that many people nowadays have resorted to keeping a file, book, or folder containing all the passwords and usernames needed to access their online world.

The more tech savvy among us may be using password management software which can store numerous passwords relatively safely, in an encrypted file, sealed with a single master password.

secure passwordWho Goes There?

The password is by no means a new phenomenon. Yet it may come as a surprise to some people that we have to go back to ancient times in order to discover its origins.

Hundreds or indeed thousands of years ago, the password was widely used in both civilian and military life. For normal folk, a watchword or password would allow them access to the town, village, or city when challenged by guards.

Likewise the password was also widely used by the military, to identify personnel returning from the field, or when coming into the camp or castle.

Modern passwords are essentially an extension of this simple concept, and is now a form of digital cryptography that protects the door to personal, corporate or otherwise private information.

But the dangers of passwords in modern life is well known. Too often people will utilise weak passwords such as “123456” or even “password” as a replacement for more complex combinations of random characters and letters.

Even worse, sometimes people will employ the same passwords across all their online services, or share the passwords with colleagues to ensure they are never locked out of a system (post stick notes on the computer etc).

This is despite security firms warning for years now about the dangers associated with insecure or weak passwords, especially as there is always people out there who will stop at nothing to bypass password security.

This is why a survey by the University of London reportedly found that one in ten people are now leaving their passwords in their wills, to pass on this vital information when they die.

Two-factor Authentication

But some experts may feel that in the face of the security threat online, the days of the simple one-factor passwords are numbered.

Two-factor authentication for example is now an increasingly popular option, as it makes passwords more secure.

Two-factor authentication will often send the user a text message, email, or alert via a third-party app whenever a login attempt is made.

Microsoft last month for instance started to replace passwords with Authenticator, an app that allows users to securely log into their Office 365 and Microsoft accounts using verification on their smartphones.

Another challenge to the password is the use of biometrics, which is typically fingerprint scans, facial recognition or retina scanning.

For years now biometrics have been touted as a way to ditch the password. Modern iPhones for example are secured by fingerprints, and Microsoft utilises retina scanning and even facial recognition for its software.

But for many the humble password, like it or loath it, remains the most commonly used option for authentication, and is likely to remain so for many years to come.

Quiz: Do you know all about security in 2016?