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Word to the Wise: Change It Regularly

May 18, 1999|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A weekly column about humans as they interact with things that beep, buzz, ring and download.

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Dear Button Pusher: When I have to select a new password, which I seem to have to do more and more of late, I always have trouble. I'm torn between picking numbers and letters at random and choosing words with some personal meaning to me. I figure a random password is more secure, but it's harder to remember.

--PUZZLED OVER PASSWORDS

Dear Passwords: Let me put your mind at ease: No matter what password you choose, it's not safe. Computer security experts liken password theft to auto theft--if someone is determined to get it, he will, no matter how many bells and whistles you have.

Hackers can use programs that run every possible permutation of a password. For an eight-letter English word (of which they are only about 5,000), that means they can crack it in about 42 minutes, according to Corey D. Schou, a business professor at Idaho State University who has written extensively about computer security. For a six-letter word, it would take less than three minutes.

However, this doesn't mean you tattoo your passwords on your forehead. Taking precautions can frustrate your low- to mid-level thief. Avoid the obvious. Ax any code that is based on personal information like your birthday, spouse's name or alma mater.

For ATM codes and the like, you don't have to worry quite as much since the thief will also need your card to access your account. But for computer sign-ons and other services where all you need is a code, experts say your best bet is to change your codes often.

Another thing to watch out for is the dreaded shoulder surfer.

"Etiquette now demands not looking at someone as they type in their log-on," Schou said. "If you catch someone doing this, go somewhere secure, and change your password immediately."

Password Fact: Some popular--and unwise--passwords in use are: "secret," "mine," "anything," "wombat" and "password."

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Dear Button Pusher: Every time I check my e-mail, there's another dumb joke that has been forwarded a thousand times. Sometimes, I get as many as a dozen a week. What's the deal?

--NOT LAUGHING

Dear Laughing: You're not the only one not laughing. Too bad there isn't a V-chip for bad jokes across America's e-mail.

In the days when a 19-inch color-TV set was considered a wide screen, humor often made its way around the nation via Johnny Carson or David Letterman. The morning after the broadcast their jokes became fodder at the office water cooler. Of course, people don't talk at water coolers anymore; they're too busy sucking down 15 gallons of liquid a day.

So, in recent years, e-mail seems to have gradually taken the place of the late-night jokesters in spreading funnies from coast to coast. The most famous example in the last year was the ubiquitous e-mail urging everyone to don a monkey suit upon the return of senior-citizen astronaut John Glenn, a la "Planet of the Apes."

Another joke zipping across the country recently satirized the popularity of urban myths. In this e-mail, a guy awakes in a tub of ice and realizes his kidneys have been stolen. After tripping across every urban myth imaginable, he finally gets shot for flashing his headlights at a car that hasn't turned them on yet.

Now, that's one for the water cooler.

For comments and questions on the human-machine relationship, please e-mail to martin.miller@latimes.com or write to Button Pusher, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or fax to (213) 237-4888.

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