By | August 19, 2016

Guest post by Martin Paul Eve

What does it mean to write a cultural history of passwords? Aren't passwords, after all, digital phenomena, part of computers and the internet? Surely passwords aren't really old enough to have a history?

Well, Ali Baba's “Open Sesame” suggests otherwise. As does Aeneas Tacitus's account of Roman siege defence where he implies that a casual whistle might work well as a password. As do the cryptographic devices of the Ancient Greek empire. As do the exploits of Alan Turing and all in Bletchley Park in World War II. Even in the limited sense of “words that grant access”, passwords pre-date our computational technologies by a substantial margin.

But what if we thought differently about passwords? What if, instead of taking them at face value, we drilled to the core of what they do? What if we had a broader concept of passwords that spanned pass-spaces, pass-actions, and pass-words?

For passwords are actually about identity. They are the mechanisms that we use to substitute for an actual person when we cannot compare every feature of a person to a pre-stored version. Instead of storing a copy of a person (which we can't do), we say: if this person knows this word, then I suspect this is the person I seek. On the basis of such decisions, made through proxies for identity, we grant access.

In such thinking, a labyrinth that is impenetrable to all but one quester is like a password. Theseus, who entered the labyrinth of the Minotaur and found his way back using a piece of string, might be called the first hacker. So too might the magic spells in the Harry Potter series be called passwords; a sequence of words of knowledge that grant access to magical feats. Does the bible give us a clue to the power of Godly pass-words when, “in the beginning was the word”?

What is also interesting about passwords, though, is that for as long as they have existed in their many forms, there have been those who would seek to defeat them. What, though, might this mean when we say that your eyeball or your fingerprint is your password (a system of measuring the body that is called “biometrics”)?

The first thing that evildoers attempt in such an environment is to hold up a picture of your eye to a scanner in order to fool it. This, in all seriousness, even worked with the first eye scanners! Yet several films—such as Angels and Demons and Demolition Man—have envisaged a gruesome scenario that is know as the “borrowed biometric bypass” that goes a step further. For our bodies are, sadly, not fixed and stealing someone's finger is easier than we might imagine for a determined villain.

These are some of the histories, contexts, and cultural aspects that I explore in Password. Speak friend and enter…


Password smallMartin Paul Eve is Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck College, University of London, UK. He is the author of Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future (2014) and Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno (2014). His most recent book, Password, has just been released in Object Lessons.

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