Where experts tread, snake oil salesmen are sure to follow.
Security experts tell us that to prevent criminals from guessing our computer passwords, we should use strings of letters that can’t be found in the dictionary—and we should then make the passwords even stronger by including numbers, symbols, and capitalization. The experts also recommend changing even the best passwords every few months. As the maxim predicts, sure enough, someone is now hawking a new product it says will keep your passwords protected. If you’re lucky, it won’t leave you worse off than before you use it.
I became aware of the snake oil in question, the Internet Password Minder, while watching TV late one insomnia-plagued night. A commercial touted its wonders.
“Who can remember all those tricky combinations?” the announcer asked. “So you stick them on your monitor." At this point, the commercial cuts to an image of someone who has slapped his hard-won strong passwords—and usernames!—on Post-It Notes stuck to the edge of his computer monitor. "Not anymore!” the announcer said excitedly.
Next came the obligatory testimonial from a “Satisfied Customer”: With Password Minder, “I don’t have to worry anymore about security or identity theft. I now have all my passwords in one place. It’s great!”
Then came the enticing product shot and an in-depth explanation of how it works. It’s a… notebook that has entries (hundreds of them, as the announcer points out) with blanks that you can fill in with the name of a website, your username, and password. And get this: it organizes them alphabetically for easy reference.
Worried about security? Here’s the announcer again to dispel those concerns. The Password Minder is “bound in discreet leatherette.” WHEW! After all, who would gaze upon the grain of the fine manmade material covering this portable data vault and not be fooled into thinking, “That couldn’t possibly be the ring containing the keys to someone’s own personal digital kingdom. No need to look in there.” And prying eyes might not see it anyway, because as another video clip showed, the Password Minder can be put into a drawer and the drawer can be closed. And when I say closed, I mean shut. You’d have to actually open the drawer to see the book.
It's hard to imagine anyone resisting such a foolproof product, but just in case, the marketers of this product concluded the pitch by sweetening the deal: “Call right now,” the announcer urged, “and you can double the offer.” That’s right: two Password Minder notebooks for just $10.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.