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July 26, 2010 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about the early days of using passwords to verify information on computers or over the telephone: 1. When we're people first expected to do so? 2. Did it seem weird to you at the time? 3. Was there anything analogous to the password concept at the time? 4. (Most important to me) How was the concept introduced to the public?

Were you around when passwords were first introduced to the general public? Did it seem "high tech"? Did it feel like "Open Sesame"?

N.B. To a lesser extent I am also interested in PIN (personal identification numbers) especially as it relates to later password adoption.
posted by 2bucksplus to Technology (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I remember when my Mom's bank first installed an ATM on the exterior of the building....this was the late 1970s, and the ATM wasn't even referred to as such (I forget what they called it then). It was limited to branches of that local bank and not compatible with other banks' machines. She was issued a PIN when they gave her her card and the written instructions advised her to write down the PIN somewhere safe and where she could easily find it; she wasn't given the option to choose her own number.

My first experience with passwords* was actually via conversations I had with my best friend. She worked for an insurance company and in 1985 the company installed a new computer system of some sort (I don't remember the specifics). I just remember her anecdotes of having to choose a password in order to "unlock" her computer at the beginning of the work day, and then having to change it every month. (Dunno why they had to change it so often, some sort of security precaution I guess.) It was sort of a running joke among employees at her company about running out of memorable passwords (they'd start out using family names, then friends' names, etc) and sardonically observing that anyone could "break into" the system, because most of the employees wrote down their passwords on their desk blotters or on sticky notes in order to remember them.

*At first she and I both joked about "The Password is...." a la the Allen Ludden game show, but we were both young and this was our first exposure to what was to us a mysterious computerized workplace. We'd both been brought up using typewriters and paper files and were totally ignorant when it came to computers.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:37 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't really speak for "the general public" but I guess I'm of the generation you're asking about.

1) You make a distinction between PINs and passwords which I don't really understand, but my first PIN usage would have come with the introduction of ATMs probablt in the late '60s or early '70s. First computer password probably was for my first programming course some time in the early '80s.

2) No.

3) Sure. Passwords were already a staple of spy and crime novels and movies.

4) "You'll need to create a password" or "Use this password".

Yes. Not particularly. No.
posted by timeistight at 10:41 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Passwords and PINs both had direct analogs in the pre-computer era, such as the bouncer asking "what's the password" at the door of a speakeasy or gambling den, or combination locks.
posted by zsazsa at 10:51 AM on July 26, 2010

Password security measures as we know them started in & around mainframe environments in the 1960s or 1970s which used timesharing or remote logins, and this branched out to consumers in the early 1980s mostly with the advent of ATMs and home computer modems. By the mid 1980s login authentication was a pretty familiar process to the public (take for example the report-card editing scenes in 1983's War Games). I think for most of the public the first exposure to machine authentication was those 4-digit passwords on ATM machines in the early 1980s.
posted by crapmatic at 10:53 AM on July 26, 2010

There is also the old fashioned calling card that allowed one to use any phone to call from your account. Originally this was done with the operator confirming a verbal password, but by the early 80s the telcos had migrated to automated systems with 4 digit telephone pins.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 10:57 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

We had a modem at home when I was in high school [early 1980s] that dialed in to some sort of mainframe and it was the first password I needed to know. I logged in with my dad's username and password. His password was four letters long. It didn't even occur to me that I could read his email or anything, I just wanted to play Adventure. His password never changed. A password to get into a computer seemed to make sense to me. We had a VAX in high school where we had to have usernames and passwords and I can't even remember much about that except that the president of the student council's password was groinpull.

My first personal password would have been an ATM in the mid-80s and I remembered that I got to pick it when I got my ATM card. We also had a machine in the guidance office [not even a computer because there was no CPU or screen but like a networked printer that you could send commands to? It must have had some sort of CPU aspect to it] that you could give information about yourself and it would spit out career and college options. There was a username/password used to get into it that everyone shared. At some point I figured out that you could change the default password and I did that for a few days and watched people be all "this thing is broken..."

I'm pretty sure you know this alread, but there are a lot of old tech magazines online that you can read from around this time that also have some interesting cultural history of passwords in them.
posted by jessamyn at 11:07 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree that the PIN paved the way for passwords. The earliest computer password I can think of in the movies is the inimitable "reindeer flotilla" from Tron.
posted by ErikaB at 11:09 AM on July 26, 2010

Other than ATMs (my first was with our credit union in the mid-70s), I think the typical first exposure was in the workplace. Most people did not even think of buying their own computers until sometime in the 1980s, and even then they were not likely to have been multi-user systems or networked systems. A few "brave souls" used BBS's or CompuServe, but widespread consumer adoption of password logins for computers probably came with (ugh) AOL.

In the workplace, my mother worked on a minicomputer system with dumb terminals in the late 70s. My own first exposure was with a job I started in 1985 where I logged in on a dumb terminal every morning. We saw the passwords as an annoyance. I remember my boss changed hers to the letter "A" so that she could type it in quickly and move on.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:22 PM on July 26, 2010

Combination locks seem like a good analog. My father had a briefcase with combination locks on it - not sure how widespread that was but it seems like it was a more likely feature of hard-sided briefcases than the shoulder bags that are more common today.
posted by yarrow at 3:56 PM on July 26, 2010

Were you around when passwords were first introduced to the general public? Did it seem "high tech"? Did it feel like "Open Sesame"?

To my mind, computer passwords were mostly something people knew about but did not themselves have to use until around the mid-80s (when services like CompuServe and AOL's predecessor QuantumLink became culturally known). The PIN was prevalent -- for ATMs, and as Funmonkey1 reminds us, telephone calling cards -- from the 1970s onward. The answering machine developed a PIN feature for calling in very early on.

I still remember my dad fumbling with his first ATM PIN and having the machine eat the card on him. It was very intimidating and Big Brother-ish. The ATM functioned not as a ubiquitous device, but as an alien metal presence in what had been an historic brick bank. People didn't yet themselves use telecommunications other than the analog phone, so what happened behind the scenes was mysterious and probably imagined as a room full of bureaucrats hovering over glowing screens listening in to everything.

I know some early BBSes did not have passwords, just usernames, but this quickly became impractical at any scale.

I remember that the popular conception of a computer password was gobbledygook (like Sarge swearing in Beetle Bailey: "#$!@&". In those days, geeks thought this was funny, because obviously you could just make it simple and easy to remember. Of course, once automated cracking tools were developed, the popular conception turned out to be a password with fairly good strength, so they had one up on us.
posted by dhartung at 11:02 PM on July 27, 2010

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