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It's No Secret: Passwords Protect Your Digital Data

February 22, 2001|JEFF LEVY |

Passwords protect computers from prying eyes.

Users can install a password so a computer will not start properly without one. Without the password, Windows won't load, even if an intruder tries to bypass the hard drive by booting with a floppy disk.

The hardware-level password is created in the Setup program. Watch for instructions to enter Setup when the computer first starts up, before Windows loads. Often the instructions will be to hit Delete or F1 to enter Setup. Follow the on-screen instructions to get to the password section and to disable or enable and select a password.

Forgetting a hardware password can be problematic because it's difficult to bypass. One way is to remove the battery from the motherboard, which clears the settings from the program that controls start-up. When the battery is reinstalled, users have to reenter the date, time and hard drive settings.

A Windows password is easier to establish but also less secure. Double-click My Computer, then Control Panel and then Passwords to establish a password.

The most effective way to protect work is to set passwords for individual files. Without the password, the files are unusable. Microsoft Office programs such as Word, Excel and Access allow users to create access passwords. Check the Help file for instructions on specific programs.

For hardware and Windows passwords at home, users should consider picking something visible from their seat at the computer--such as the name of a book on a nearby shelf. For work passwords, use as many as five or six ones that consist of numbers and letters in a random arrangement.

Forget a document password? Companies such as AccessData ( specialize in document password recovery. It generally takes one of three forms. In a "simple recovery" the software looks at predetermined places in a document, depending on the program used to create it. Although users can't read the password stored in a document, password recovery software can read it quickly and easily.

The next level of document password recovery is hard recovery. When a document password can't be read, the software tries to guess it by running all possible words from an English dictionary.

The third method for cracking passwords is brute force. The software tries every possible combination including upper- and lowercase letters and special characters. It's slow, but it works.

It's safe to conclude that passwords aren't always effective. If privacy is a real concern, keep sensitive documents on a floppy or Zip disk and store them in a heat-proof lockbox.


LJeff Levy hosts the "On Computers" radio talk show from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on KFI-AM (640).

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