Top Stories from the News pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, November 25, 1999

Passwords and PINs Needle a Wired World

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - I feel more like a pinhead every day. And if you're the least bit wired in this shrinking global village we call home, you probably feel the same.

First thing in the morning I turn on my cellular phone and punch in the four digit Personal Identification Number (PIN) to hook into the network.

Then I boot my computer and launch the modem to connect to my Internet service provider by typing in the nine or so digits and letters of my password.

In my first five minutes awake I've entered about 17 inane digits and letters, the beginning of a string in a day in the life of the brave new digital world.

After downloading 43 messages, of which only one may be of interest, I launch my browser and check out a few Web sites. Some of these also require creative user-names and passwords -- the best are always taken by other people before I get to them -- which puts me up to about 72 numbers and letters.

Now I check out my e-mail at the office via a remote system, which also requires about nine letters for the user name and a few more for the password. I then read through the newswire services via another remote system, which also requires some eight letters for the user name and five more for the password.

I'm up to about 97 letters and digits before breakfast, or enough to make me late for work.

On the way to work, I fill the car up with gas, paying for it by punching in the four numbers of my credit card's PIN code -- a ''smart'' card here in France, with an embedded computer chip -- to bring the gibberish total to over 100.

When I arrive at work, I have to type in the five or so digits of the door security system the first of several times I will do this in a day.

Part of my job involves manipulating data that goes out to the Internet and into databases. The number of passwords and PIN codes this requires must bring me to well over 200 digits and letters.

After work I have to press another four-digit code into the lock to get into my apartment building, but I let the kids do that, since they are still at an age when they consider it fun. (I call it preparation for the future.)

Unfortunately, I have now reached the limit to the number of PINs and passwords my brain can remember. I've had to resort to a certain overlap in some of these keys to modern life. The result is that I now foolishly re-use the user name bspurgeon, and even some passwords.

Is there such thing as a portable, all-purpose, password- and PIN-application system? I would buy one. But I'm afraid that with so many different uses -- credit cards, doors and Internet sites -- that technology is some way off.


STILL, IF I could devise a system whereby each human being was assigned his or her own permanent PIN and password for every possible use, I would become as rich as some of our enslavers.

At least until some gentleman hacker performs ''The Great PIN Robbery'' and steals my identity.

Which leaves me thinking there probably is a certain security in the current chaos, after all.

Brad Spurgeon is on the staff of the International Herald Tribune.

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