PARIS — On the other end of the line, the voice of the person from the IT maintenance service grows insistent. “Miss, I really need your password to unlock your computer.” You blush by yourself, try to be as inconspicuous as possible in the open office before whispering in the receiver: “lapinou69” (“bunny69”). A chuckle from the IT guy, as you try in vain to justify the choice.
According to Gemalto, the world leader in digital security, one billion data records were stolen in cyberspace in 2014, half of those attacks being linked to identity theft. Cyber crime is skyrocketing and experts are panicking. And yet, more than half of French Internet users protect their life online with passwords that are pet names and birthdays.
The security of such passwords is close to zero, experts have warned. Especially when you use the same to access your emails, Facebook profile, online banking and eBay account. But of course, we all know these are easier to remember. “When you’re sitting at your computer, you first look for simplicity, correlated to your own estimated ability to reproduce a password,” explains Francis Eustache, neuropsychologist and leader of a research unit on memory at the Inserm. “This is procedural memory, what philosopher Henri Bergson used to call digital memory, the memory in our finger, the one that’s separated from the meaning.”
But simplicity is not the only factor at play when we choose a password. “Research has shown that it’s not only a matter of laziness. The intimate connection we establish with our passwords is also at play,” says Emmanuel Schalit, CEO of Dashlane, a password manager software.
“I used to systematically choose my husband’s date of birth," recalls Rebecca. "Then we had a son, so I used his. Then we had a daughter …” Wanting to please her children, she now interchanges both dates of birth randomly, but admits getting mixed up, and also feeling guilty for having shut her husband away from her virtual life.
Already in 2001, British psychologist Helen Petrie, a specialist of man-machine interaction at City University London, was studying how 1,200 users were creating their passwords. She concluded that our choices are our personality in a nutshell, a sort of “21st century Rorschach test.”
“The brain tries to work as little as possible so it rests on what it has already learned," says Francis Eustache. "Humans rely on its fundamentals, what they like, their hobbies, their aspirations.”
A daily confessional
It’s therefore only natural that Michel, a soccer fan, has been using since France won the World Cup in 1998 “Iwillsurvive” as a password, after a remix version of Gloria Gaynor’s song that became the world champions’ anthem. For Pierre, it’s “cinéphile midinette” ("movie sweetheart"), a “glorious quote” from Brigitte Bardot in the 1957 movie … And God Created Woman. “Because a password shouldn’t be forgotten, why not use a memory,” says Mila. Her own password is “Quiberon86,” “the time and place of an unfinished love story,” but one that she forces herself to think about several times per day.
Eustache says the unconscious also liberates itself in this intimate space that’s supposed to remain secret, "For some, those eight characters can be a way to exorcize old demons, the name of an absent father or a connection to the country we left as a child. “My password is the verb "to cry" in Iranian,” says Rani, exiled since 1979.
“I was so frightened by the film Jaws that I was scared of swimming for a long time,” explains Berthe. “My first passwords were variations of my phobia, sharks and other animals, which with time have become an object of great fascination.”
Others have turned passwords into autosuggestion 2.0. “After my pregnancy, I chose "IAmTooFat" until I reached my ideal weight again,” says Perrine. An anxious Thierry picked “yodayoda” so the Force would always be with him. As for the “quitsmoking” and “dontgivein,” their use is spreading as fast as that of electronic cigarettes.
For sociologist Stéphane Hugon, passwords are like “a confessional.” It frees you, “becoming the place where you leave things that have become burdensome, either because you can’t achieve them or, on the contrary, to identify them and separate yourself from them.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that inside companies, those temples of words left unsaid, passwords include curses and even insults. “Everyday I sit opposite my superior, whom I hate — and I type, again and again, "fatidiot,"” says Amélie. “It might seem like nothing, but it feels good.”