World Password Day: A look back on the history of the electronic password

2020-03-13 - 5 min read

The password. A simple security measure that protects something important, and one that’s been in use since humankind could talk. The concept of a password hasn’t changed in all of our history. Want to protect something valuable in the Middle Ages? Guard it with a password. And maybe the physical presence of a 7-foot tall bouncer.

But that was then, and we are very much in the now. Why go through the hassle of hiring big, burly men when you can lock a secret down with an impossible-to-guess password? Thank goodness all our secrets are kept electronically now.

The password has been so deeply ingrained in human society that, in 2013, Intel Security declared that the first Thursday of May would be Password Day.

Who created the password?

When the word “password” is mentioned today, our minds immediately associate that with an electronic purpose. Your phone? Protected with a password. Your home computer? You better believe it’s protected with a password – especially if you’re sharing it with other people.

An individual is often viewed as borderline-delusional if they haven’t protected their devices with a password. This is the reality of data exchanges having to rely on electronic signals – most of your sensitive information can be found in one place: your phone, your laptop, your computer.

But where did the idea of an electronic password come from? The answer to that begins with Fernando J. Corbato. During his time at MIT in the 1950s, Fernando was frustrated with how computers could only process one task at a time. He developed the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), a technique that divided up the processing power of a computer.

This gave many users the chance to use one computer at the same time, so long as the tasks were minor. With multiple people now working on the same machine, he developed a password system as a way to hide files and programs from any prying eyes. Lo and behold, the electronic password system, which we still use to this day, was born. Fernando passed away in 2019, but his legacy lives on in every password-protected device.

What about other electronic security measures?

We can’t talk about passwords without mentioning all the different variants. After all, why have a password as your sole protection? Why not back it up with security questions as well? Or a PIN? Still not enough? Then how about something unique to the user – a fingerprint scan?

The PIN

A PIN, or Personal Identification Number, is something almost as old as the modern password. The PIN was conceived in 1967 by James Goodfellow, a Scottish inventor. He created the PIN to be used alongside an ATM – and for his efforts received an OBE title in 2006 from Queen Elizabeth herself.

You would be mistaken in thinking that the PIN-ATM combo was from the efforts of one person. The engineering team behind creating the ATM was led by British-inventor John Shepherd-Barron. The concept was born from wanting a vending machine that dispensed cash instead of candy.

The PIN was initially supposed to be a 6-digit number – and actually is in Switzerland. Some Italian banks also use the rare 5-digit PIN. John settled on 4 digits for the PIN because his wife struggled to remember more than that!

The fingerprint scan

As the years have gone by and technology marched further on, our security measures have reached extreme levels. It’s not enough to enter a unique password – now, you have to provide biological proof that you’re the right person. Biometrics are becoming the go-to method for enforcing electronic protection.

Most modern phones have the option to use the fingerprint scan. And why wouldn’t you? For someone to break into your device, they would need to physically manipulate your hand into unlocking it. Unless you’re a very heavy sleeper, this security method is impenetrable.

The concept of using a fingerprint as an authentication tool began earlier than you would expect. Ancient Babylonians, for example, ratified business deals by imprinting their fingers into wet clay. But the widespread use of the fingerprint for identification didn’t truly come to fruition until 1896.

Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police at the time, Sir Edward Henry, created a fingerprint classification system that was implemented as a crime-fighting tool in 1901. However, this technique, while accurate, was slow – samples had to be compared by hand. Then came the computer, and in the 1980s, fingerprint identification technology hit a new high.

With the added processing power of a computer, fingerprints can now be implemented in areas outside of crime. Biometrics are the perfect way to reinforce your electronic defenses with an authenticator that can’t be copied or hacked.

The recent addition of biometrics begs the question of how far we’re willing to go to keep our secrets safe. The fact that the need for more robust measures only cements how much of an influence on modern society the password has had. Our secrets will always be protected by the humble password, which is exactly why we commemorate them with Password Day.

Monica Webster
Monica Webster
Verified author
Monica is the spirit of our content team. Her bubbliness and creativity sparkle her articles. She loves to investigate various security related problems and bring useful tips to readers. When she is not writing about technology, she explores art.
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