• Fri
  • Nov 28, 2014
  • Updated: 3:37am
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 5:04am

The more passwords we have, the less protected we feel

Peter Kammerer calls for a sober review of how the extensive use of technology is exposing us to ever-higher risks of identity theft

Governments are spying on our electronic communications. Our personal data is being farmed without our knowledge by off- and online companies. An e-mail just arrived advising me to change my eBay password for security's sake, and it's time for me to come up with another complicated login for my work computer; I have to use at least eight characters, upper and lower case, mix in a few alpha-numerics and still be able to remember it. Technology is supposed to make life easier, not challenging and frustrating.

This is not an anti-progress rant. Having started journalism in the hot-metal days, when reporters wrote stories on mechanical typewriters and newspaper presses used slugs of lead type, I know just how beneficial computers can be. Being able to buy items from anywhere with the internet, pay bills by phone and use an Octopus card rather than have to have cash on hand is where the world should be. But as I write this, a robot vacuum cleaner whirring in the background, I have concluded that we have to limit which part of our lives we let technology into.

Banking would be a good place to start. There's no safe way to protect passwords; the hackers and fishers are always coming up with new ways to crack and trick. The more complicated our passwords are expected to be and the more sophisticated the security tokens we're given, the more obvious it is that we have to return to basics. A pill under development that, after being swallowed, is triggered by stomach acid to send a password to a sensor in a laptop, shows just how bizarre matters are getting. It's time that we admitted defeat.

Defeat means that, for our most sensitive types of banking - involving whatever we consider to be threshold amounts - we have to return to over-the-counter transactions. The smaller the threshold, the better; it would make accounts more secure, get us out of our homes and offices for much-needed exercise and force banks back into the business of serving customers and focusing on a vital role for a capitalist economy, lending and helping save.

It would also deter and prevent the scourge of too-easy cash, which I demonstrated to a colleague a few months ago. Picking up a phone, I dialled my bank's customer service line, asked about a loan being advertised and, with only a punched-in password for verification, had a six-digit amount of extra funds in my account within the minute.

But banking is only the tip of the problem. A study last year by the global information services group Experian found that the typical adult between the ages of 25 and 34 years had 40 online accounts. Keeping track of so many passwords isn't possible, so it's a given that the same one is being used for several accounts (and perhaps all). Should it fall into the wrong hands, chances are good that it could unlock riches, whether monetary or personal.

With so much online activity, it's no wonder spying agencies are trawling the internet. Criminals have worked that out - which is why evidence increasingly shows they're back to plotting face to face rather than using technology to communicate. It's a lead those of us worried about online security need to heed for our most sensitive transactions.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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