Sunday, March 12, 2006

Trouble in Three Little Words

(Podcast Version)

I remember the good old days when I was in the classroom. It was around 2 or 3 BC (Before Consulting around 1996). I would stand in front of a class of students in my Internet Basics class and say, "Here are the keys to my car and my house. Here is my wallet with all my money and credit cards. I would give you any of these before I give you my password. With my keys and wallet, you have my money in your possession. With my password, you have my life."

That's how I started my discussion of passwords with my students. They looked at me like I was crazy, because they saw no problem with that and many of them shared their passwords with friends and family, an unwise and easily dangerous habit.

I would continue, "I can wreck your life with three words." The students then begin guessing unsuccessfully what they might be. Eventually I say, "You are dead."

That remark is greeted with more strange looks that seem to confirm their opinion of my sanity until I explained that if I had someone's password and used it to send those three words to the President of the United States, the Secret Service would be at their door in very short order.

The discussion went on from there to discuss how people are tracked down on the Internet and that it is very difficult to be anonymous.

Today, password protection can literally be a matter of life and death. Identity theft is a serious problem and when it takes place in a cyberbullying situation, it can be devastating to the point of suicide.

Oh, there is an interesting twist to the "Your are dead" story. I had given that lesson on a Friday. When I came to school on Monday, my boss called me to his office and said, "Art, we have a problem."

My obvious reply was, "What is it?"

His answer was one short sentence, "We're getting a visit from the Secret Service."

My immediate thought was that I knew where that had come from and I told him of my lesson. He looked less than pleased. As things turned out, it was not my lesson or even one of my students who had caused the problem. A student had accessed the White House website and left a message there threatening the President, using another student's name.

They had traced the IP back to our school and in short order we were able to determine who had actually sent the message. Problems over a girl had precipitated the message, but girl problems were the least of his problems now. While the Secret Service took no action, there as a suspension from school and significant impact on the student's college plans.

From that day on, my keys and wallet story had a new conclusion, but the message remains the same... Share your password with no one!

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