Your past may be history unless secret passwords are passed on

One of the pleasures of a rainy day was to scrabble through cupboards and bottom drawers and dusty boxes shoved under beds to unearth albums of family photos.
By · 9 Nov 2013
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9 Nov 2013
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One of the pleasures of a rainy day was to scrabble through cupboards and bottom drawers and dusty boxes shoved under beds to unearth albums of family photos.

It was a form of geology. Here was a grandfather perched upon a buggy, the horse resigned to another journey down a dusty road; parents lounging upon a beach looking impossibly young, their bathing suits hilarious; a father barely more than a boy in the uniform of the Light Horse, an emu plume adorning his slouch hat; a great-uncle beneath the pyramids of Giza and at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, snapped by a little folding camera soldiers weren't supposed to carry; an old country homestead, children lined up on the verandah, the boys in starched collars, their sisters in elaborate crinoline with frills, most of them gone now.

On such exploratory days it was possible to trace the history of the family's Holdens, right back to the 1948 model, and beyond to jalopies that had more style than the finest of sleek modern-day metal.

Here was an old shipping pier, replaced decades ago; a paddock of stooked hay - and who these days could imagine the effort that went into the stooking, or even what it was? - and, good lord, a rather elegant building, long since ripped down, rearing from the shallows of a beach unrecognisable now. The building encircled what was known as the sea baths and we marvelled that men and women once were required to bathe there modestly and separately.

Just about every family kept its history in albums, growing more valuable and amazing by the year. Some kept boxes of letters tucked away. Love letters; correspondence from battlefields; scrawled notes of homesick longing and excitement from children on their travels; stern notes from school principals ...

We still take photos, of course, more than ever, and we still send letters.

But most of these fragments of what one day will be ancient and delightful history are in digital form in the memory of computers and smart phones and tablets - photos in the cloud, letters within the detritus of email inboxes.

Rarely enough do we bother to print them out and store them in physical albums and put them away in boxes under beds. They are, after all, simply moments of contemporary events, and it's difficult enough to imagine their immediacy growing old and startling to those who might look back at them as if they were from the Bronze Age.

Unless we delete them, these digitised mementoes will, of course, be preserved long after we are gone. Forever maybe.

But most of them, like our mobile banking accounts and the first hesitant chapters of books we might never finish on word-processing programs or our diaries and notes to ourselves and all the other private stuff we consign to the virtual, digitalised ether, are locked away behind passwords. We equip our smartphones, iPads and computers with a password just to unlock them, and then there are regularly more codes required to gain access to each application and program.

It's hard, impossible even, to spend a rainy day pleasurably scrabbling around in the long-ago on a computer if you haven't been bestowed with the gift of the password that grants entree. Not many of us know much about decryption. The point of a password is to keep secrets.

Pity, then, librarians and archivists and historians trying to gather and store the real-life chronicles of the ordinary people of this and future generations.

Those who organise their lives sensibly write a will and store the title to the family home with details of insurance policies and bank accounts and suchlike in a safety deposit box or with their lawyer and leave instructions about how their next of kin or executor may gain access.

But what of the other stuff that has given one's life meaning?

Music, for instance. Not so long ago we built collections of the music that we loved on vinyl and CDs. Our children and their children, if they wished, could inherit these physical stacks of bliss, maybe immerse themselves in the playing of them and figure out what had stirred the inner lives of the old folk.

Our music collections now are largely digitised and downloaded as data on our smartphones or the like. And that means they are likely to be secreted away behind passwords. Assuming our grandkids might want to know some day what twanged our wires and formed the soundtracks of the moments that became evocative, they may never gain the key.

Most of us now find ourselves so burdened with passwords and PIN numbers that we can confuse even ourselves. We are urged to change the passcodes on our more valued data regularly, and make them more and more complicated so they can't readily be cracked and hacked. We are warned not to write them down or, if we do, to keep them in a secure place.

A lot of us turn out to be dills. Only this week Fairfax Media published what were said to be the most common passwords discovered when hackers stole the active data of 38 million customers of the giant software company Adobe. The three most common passwords? "123456" was used by 1.9 million people, another half million used the longer "12345678" and hundreds of thousands of users apparently believed they were protecting their identities by simply using the word "password".

There are, of course, a burgeoning number of allegedly secure applications and programs in which those of us who are rather more security conscious can lock away our secret codes. There they hide, digitised and floating in the cloud, perfectly organised, always available to only the registered owner.

There is a catch, naturally. You need a password to unlock your hidey-hole of secret codes. And because you have taken the trouble to create such a clandestine repository, you need a password that is so complicated it's going to be difficult for even the most skilled hacker with the best algorithm to crack.

That means you're most likely going to have trouble remembering it yourself.

Lawyers, naturally, are getting on to the puzzle. They call the stuff hidden away on our computers "digital assets", and some of them are offering the service of storing your passwords with instructions on who should be granted access to them, and what should happen to their contents after you've gone.

Pretty good idea, assuming you trust your lawyer. But it takes a bit of the romance out of a rainy day, searching through cupboards and bottom drawers for the past.
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