Half a century ago, Fernando Corbató changed the world. He helped deploy the first computer password, transforming not only how we use technology but also how we think about privacy. Now, in the era of the web, the former MIT professor thinks passwords are a nightmare. He’s not wrong.
Corbató recently sat down with The Wall Street Journal and offered up some pretty wise insight into how little cyber security has evolved over the years. Back when he was teaching computer science, everyone at MIT shared the same mainframe and one common disk file, so they needed a way “to avoid people needlessly nosing around in everybody’s files,” Corbató explained. Password-protected accounts solved this problem and also served as a way to keep people from using the computer too much. (There was a four hour limit.)
In a sense, you have to hand it to the 87-year-old for coming up with such a durable solution to a complex problem. And yet even Corbató acknowledges that it’s an imperfect one. “Unfortunately it’s become kind of a nightmare with the World Wide Web,” he told WSJ. “I have to confess, I used to use a crib sheet… Three typed pages. Probably 150 passwords over the years.” At least he’s not just using “123456” like the rest of us.
But seriously, it’s time for a new solution. When you can break into a public utility’s control system simply by guessing a password, possibly gaining access to switches that would let you shut off a city’s electricity, it’s obvious that this 50-year-old approach isn’t working any more. Creepy facial recognition software, here we come!
Picture: Computer History Museum