Monday, November 11, 2013

Password Plot

I was reading a book.  The title is not important, as I'm guessing you've encountered this same situation in many other books, movies, or TV shows.  

In this bit of fiction, a woman was stuck in the office of a man she'd recently met.  She needed access to the network, so she brings up his login and needs to enter a password.  I start to squirm, because I see where this is going.

Over the next few pages she goes through an intricate guessing game, analyzing what she knows about this stranger.  On the third try, she guesses his password (his sister's name) and gains access to his files.

I groan and lose all respect for this book. 

I'm amazed at how often this exact scenario happens in a book or movie.  It's such a lame, ridiculous plot point.   The protagonist needs to gain access to someone's files, so they take a stab at a stranger's password.  And it works.  Really?  Of the 20 bazillion combinations of letters and words, in three tries our hero guesses the name of the dead relative, pet, or food that the person uses as their password?  Really?

This is how passwords work in the real world:  I could tell you that one of my passwords is based on my cat's name, and in a hundred tries, you still couldn't guess the exact combination of letters, numbers, and case.  My cat's name is Hermione.  The password is not herm74Butt, or herM10nee10 or Cat56Barf. But I guarantee you would not have guessed any of those in your first 100 tries.  Anyone who lives in 21st-century America and cares at all about protecting their files will have a similarly difficult password to guess.

So what is this plot point of correctly guessing a password trying to illustrate?

If it's to show how stupid the person is who created the password, well then, it's a fine plot point. 

Mission accomplished.  Carry on.

If it's just a device to allow the hero access to those files, there are many more credible ways to do that.  For instance, the hero could find a piece of paper with the password written down.  Yes, that's also stupid, but way more believable than them guessing a string of letters and numbers. Or the hero learns the password in some other unlikely, but more credible way.  I'll let the author come up with that.  I'm not writing the story, I'm just telling you what doesn't work.

Often I think the point of guessing the password is to show how clever the hacker is.  They deduce the password based on what they know of the hackee.  They analyze their personality and make educated guesses.  Or it's there to illustrate some personality trait about the hackee.  See, his password is Yankees, so he really likes baseball. (See above re: stupid character.) 

("You will always return to your dark master, the cocoa bean")

The hilarity of the Seinfeld scene notwithstanding, when it's used in a serious story, the whole premise is so unbelievable, it just ends up coming across as a lame, manipulative trick that annoys me.  


I got about halfway through this book, and decided it wasn't worth reading any further.  I was able to got over the password thing, but the rest of it just continued to suck.  It's not often I give up on a book after I've invested time in it.  Even if the writing annoys me, I usually stick with it to find out what happens-- to see if there's a payoff at the end.

With this book, I didn't care.  I hated all the characters and didn't care what happened to them.

I could guess this password, and it was sucktastic.  

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