Cybersecurity

Remember More Passwords by Visualizing Them

Making a secure password is easy. For example: $uByX4d8@jMn3u7*!hN1. See? That only took a few seconds to type! Now, uh... how is anyone supposed to remember something like that?

We've discussed what makes a good password (start by making it longer), but remembering passwords is a bit more tricky, especially since you should avoid re-using the same password for everything. A study of web users by Microsoft Research found that the average user has 6.5 web passwords, 25 accounts that require passwords, and types an average of 8 passwords per day. That's a lot of alphanumeric and special characters to remember. Fortunately, you can rely on another part of your brain to recall all those pesky passwords.

Now You See It...

One memory method involves creating a unique visual story or scene to remember passwords. First, select words that rhyme with numbers (fun for one, blue for two, free for three, etc.). Then create a visual image to associate with those numbers.

For example: if your bank PIN is 1234 (and please change your bank PIN immediately if it is 1234, as that combination accounts for 10.7 percent of all PINs), then you could visualize a bun (for one) on top of a shoe (two) sitting in a tree (three) with a door (four) in its trunk. The same approach can be used for letters by assigning them an image: A is apple, B is bowl, C is crayon, and so on.

This may sound like a daunting task at first, but it becomes easier over time. Don't believe us? Think back to the mnemonic device you might have learned to remember the order of the planets orbiting our sun before Pluto got demoted, "My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" (or any of the dozens of variants). That probably sounded silly the first time you heard it, but for millions of people, the strange sentence stuck.

Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at the Institute of Neuroscience and School of Psychology at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, told CIO that with practice, recalling these scenes can help you remember two or three dozen visual images at a time. "The links there embed themselves in the brain much more deeply and widely, such that you will remember that image much more readily than you will remember the verbal encoding" of a password," Robertson said.

Why is this method so effective? You can thank science: a 2011 study from researchers at Harvard and MIT argued that it is easier to remember images and information that we are already familiar with and have some meaning to us.

Keeping It Real

In a world where cyber-attacks seem constant and hundreds of data security breaches occur each year, why is password safety such a big deal if someone could just hack us anyway? We asked Dr. Natalie Vanatta, an instructor of mathematics at West Point and Deputy Chief of Research at the Army Cyber Institute, about cybersecurity on the Curiosity Podcast.

"Most cyber-attacks today can be drawn back to poor password management. That's the key. Pick strong passwords, replace passwords as often as you're told to, don't re-use passwords between important applications... That solves a lot of the problem right there," Vanatta explained. "The media will talk about these hackers who are writing all this malicious code, and they're going to steal all your information... but a lot of times, how these attacks start is just poor passwords."

There are other ways to make life easier. You can use a plethora of password managers to keep a library of your passwords under one hard-to-crack master password. And you're allowed to write down your passwords, but at least modify what you write down to give it a disguise. Maybe just write down a password hint, like something that rhymes with your password. No matter what you write down, at least keep it away from your computer, and if possible, don't mention what the password unlocks.

Little things like that can mean the difference between staying safe and asking for trouble. "It's thinking about the little thing we can do when it comes to our risk assessments for our behavior that we have online," Vanatta told us. "If you just do the little things, you will protect yourself."

To hear our full conversation with Dr. Natalie Vanatta, instructor of mathematics at the United States Military Academy and deputy chief of research at The Army Cyber Institute at West Point, stream the Curiosity Podcast using the player below (or click here for the show notes).

How To Remember Countless Passwords With A Single Trick

Written By
Cody Gough
November 6, 2017