Time was when life was simple. If I got locked out of my car (yes it did happen on a wet November afternoon, back in the seventies when the AA was the fourth response service), an old wire coat-hanger or Kirby grip could be deployed to effect entry. Similarly if I mistakenly pulled the door to on leaving my second floor flat without the front key in my pocket, all I had to do was look under the Geranium pot standing at the main entrance on my return and there – nine times out of ten, the spare set lay, surrounded by a cluster of small red ants, and a bit of dirt.
And information storage? A breeze if somewhat restricted. Admittedly there were challenges when the internal retrieval system of file cards, diaries and address books failed. From time to time a desperate search would be mounted across desk drawers, sideboards, in the inner zipped pockets of handbags and under the bed to find a miscreant pocket diary. But by and large, apart from the occasional disaster when coffee spilt on a couple of file cards whilst wrestling with a late n
ight assignment fueled by caffeine and Stevie Wonder on the stereo, all was pretty much secure.
Spying too seemed altogether more engaging and romantic. Whether envisaged through Graham Greene’s vision of cold war Vienna, with broad rimmed hats pulled down over half lit faces, cobbled streets and smoke rings rising to the accompaniment of zither or balalaika; or through the imaginary of James Le Carré with Whitehall skullduggery in dark oak offices, paper files pressed into old leather brief cases, dead letter boxes, and public school spymasters; the future destiny of Europe and world peace was fixed from the depths of club armchairs hard by St James’ Square, exploiting spotters and fixers on the ground, getting wet, hungry, terrified and murdered.
Enter the brave new world of computing – multi-platform, plugged in, synchronised, Excel spread, Linked up, always ‘on’, big data mobile generation. A world of cyber human invincibility. Enter also complexity, anxiety for some amounting to a form of phobia, and the pandora’s box of our password management. For truly the top boffins of MI5 would be challenged in thwarting the unseen and unquantifiable threat from hackers, hot-desking colleagues, Trojans, viruses, neighbours’ spam attacks, parents review or even one’s partner’s attentions. For private to remain private in our cyber-extended selves takes effort and time – mental energy and frustration abound. ,
This brave new world of constant ‘open’ communication, has opened up a plethora of unforeseen consequences. A significant new blight has entered the mental health of Britain. Two simple words express it – not Whistle – blower, not CIA attack, not even Spam overload – no more ubiquitous, real and persistent are the following two humiliating words – ‘lost password’. The shame. The horror. The irritation. The loss of connection. The total waste of time. More ubiquitous than the lost pairing to socks or earrings, the loss of these 6-12 letter, number and symbolic amalgams are a contemporary blight which is scarcely talked about, a private humiliation and a contemporary purgatory. A lost password can leave one wandering around the fourth circle of Dante’s inferno, longing for insight, regretting one’s failure to store aforesaid cryptic key safely in head, notepad or phone, and crying out for mercy.
I have my theory awaiting NHS beta testing, that the constant misplacing, forgetting, misspelling and wholesale loss of higher cortex functioning which surrounds the generation of unrecognised passwords, particularly those used for less frequent access for occasional purchases, whether arranging train tickets, hotels, or on-line auctions, constitutes a background texture of anxiety, across a substantial section of the Global population.
The exhortation by sites, not to write down our modern-day hieroglyphics, rather to memorise and internally digest them, has been taken to heart by a generation unaware of the unintended consequence of being recruited into the practices of second-rate and poorly equipped spies. We are advised not to repeat the use of these special ‘words’ for any other login, thus undermining the ability of our memory to avail itself of frequent repetition. We are not to replicate our pets’ or best
friend’s name, we forswear the simple but compelling use of ‘password’ or the initial numeration of many factory settings, 1234. The quoting of lines from Shakespeare, with the cadence of iambic pentameter to ease recall, could be an educational device were it not for the word limit. We are required to generate many special words, some with temporarily quixotic meaning, many with insertions of numerics and symbols last seen in our Algebra General Certificate Exam. Particularly prescient for those born before the generation of IT into public space, we stumble around with a condition replicating a form of early dementia. We are reminded of our failing grip on data, wonder at its loss, struck intensely by a sudden sense of grief and our own mortality as we encounter a flaming firewall of ignorance, denied the Elysian delights of distilled meta data just the other side of our forgotten login details.
The latest revelation to be discussed at Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), that there may have been links with the US Prism surveillance system set up by America’s National Security Agency (NSA) as part of its anti-terror measures developed post the 9/11 attacks in 2001 raises further points of interest. Through this alleged alliance with Prism, it is claimed that GCHQ in Cheltenham has been listening into data accrued by Prism from British Citizens’ use of on-line fora (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/07/clapper-secret-nsa-surveillance-prism). With big hitting internet providers involved in the passing of data, allegedly including according to the Guardian report, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PayPal, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI has reportedly been extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs to help analysts track users’ movements and contacts, to profile potential terrorist activity.
It made me think. Maybe ringing the GCHQ helpdesk in Cheltenham could be a better first point of contact when we next mislay a significant password. It could herald the next great breakthrough. NHS targets on reducing depression and low-level anxiety, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills targets for breakthrough products and National Security concerns addressed in one short call to the help line. It could just be a better solution than hitting the reset button, and the generation of more hieroglyphics destined for eventual oblivion and loss.
Joined up governance, focusing on human flourishing and well-being is what is required. Who knows – we await the outcome of the Intelligence and Security Committee on this one – and a Government statement on alongside the pressing issues of privacy, how the impact of the ubiquitous hidden plague of multiple password loss can most effectively be
addressed. In the light of Prism’s ability to crack the most robust attempts of those seeking to hide behind false personas, avatars and passwords, in order to eavesdrop where and when the NSA chooses, it is clear that both US and UK governments have the means at their disposal to address this blight of late modern times.
In this 20th year of celebration of the international launch of the World Wide Web through the introduction of the Mosaic web server in 1993, it is now time to name and address the challenge of personal data encryption and persistent password loss (PL). Coming out about the prevalence of PL in our communities, affecting as it does all socio-economic, age sets, abilities, gender and ethnic groupings, would be a significant step forward for the management not only of latent technophobia in some sections of the community, but also the chronic depression induced by persistent misplacement of key login information and address this at source. I await the secondary outcome of the ISCs deliberations with great expectations.