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password fatigue

noun [uncountable]

tiredness and frustration caused by having to remember a large number of passwords for electronically-controlled activities

'One of the tribulations of internet life is password fatigue. Use a different one for every website and you're likely to forget them. Write them all down, or use the same one, and you risk becoming the latest victim of identity theft.'

The Observer 22nd April 2007

Pass through the office security door – enter correct code. Log on to the company computer system – enter password. Buy lunch at a local restaurant with your debit card – enter PIN. Open your front door and disable the alarm – enter password. Check out your bank account online – enter password and PIN. Purchase something on Ebay® – enter username and password … And so it goes on. If your head is regularly spinning each time you have to summon up those all important sequences of letters and digits, then you could be suffering from password fatigue.

the particular danger of password fatigue is that it causes us to do things which can seriously compromise the security of our protected information

Information technology is the driving force of modern life. Its influence is no longer restricted to the workplace but impacts on all other aspects of our day too – how we shop, eat, travel, manage our finances, find things out, entertain ourselves. But all this convenience opens up security risks which we have to protect ourselves against. We need a virtual padlock, and a virtual key to open it – the ubiquitous password. Research suggests that if someone is a fairly intensive computer user then they'll have at least 20 online accounts, and possibly many more. And for each, they may need to know a password. Wearily trying to remember them all, they become sufferers of password fatigue.

For many of us, there's nothing more frustrating than being angrily bleeped at by some sort of electronic device, or staring at a screen which says 'password incorrect'. We'll do anything to ensure that we get those letters/numbers right. So the particular danger of password fatigue is that it causes us to do things which can seriously compromise the security of our protected information. For instance, we've only got one front door key, so why not go for the convenience of just one password? That way, we can access everything we want and only have to remember one sequence of characters. The problem is, of course, that once someone unscrupulous has cracked our code, they can trample through all our online property unhindered. Other risky approaches include writing passwords down, or choosing ones that are easy to remember (and therefore easy to guess).

And it's not just the remembering issue that causes password fatigue. Other sources of frustration are the unexpected demands that a particular system imposes, such as having to type a password twice or being asked to include particular characters or digits.

In an attempt to address the problem of password fatigue and other unsatisfactory issues surrounding password-based security, software companies are now starting to offer alternatives which incorporate biometrics (electronic identification systems based on physical appearance, such as fingerprints). One such product is BioPassword which incorporates keystroke dynamics, and is based on the idea that each user's rhythm of typing is unique.

A less sophisticated antidote to password fatigue is the use of memory triggers which are simple but unique. For instance, think of the first line of your favourite song, and put together a password based on the first letter of each word. In order to remember it, all you need to do is sing!

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 14th April 2008.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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