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Each October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shares tips and tricks for tech safety during National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Naturally, a key focus is using strong, secure passwords — tips the father of the computer password, Fernando Corbató, could have perhaps used himself.

Corbató, who passed away on July 15, 2019, admitted to the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that he kept a written log of passwords (that he planned on moving to a password manager).

The birth of the computer password

Corbató implemented the first use of computer passwords in the early 1960’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT researchers working on the Compatible Time-Sharing System needed a way to assign each user accessing the CTSS a unique set of files. The CTSS made it possible for multiple users to simultaneously access a mainframe computer.

Corbató’s goal wasn’t high security; rather, he wanted to offer some compartmentalization in a communal setting. After all, as Corbató told the WSJ, “Passwords are not a super high level of security but are enough to protect against casual snooping.”

Still, some of the CTSS staff were tempted to become hackers. Graduate student Allen Scherr confessed upon the 25th anniversary of the CTSS that after his initial system privileges were removed, he secretly printed a list of all user passwords and used them to continue accessing the system for his research. Twenty-five years after the fact, CTSS program director Robert Fano assured Scherr his PhD wouldn’t be revoked.

Encourage computer users to check out the National Cybersecurity Awareness Month password tip sheet so they can be #BeCyberSmart.

Photo: Raw Pixel / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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