Passwords — we all have a million of them in our lives. Like them or not, you can’t escape having to use them for just about everything these days, from unlocking your mobile phone to accessing your bank account online to streaming a movie on Netflix. While the prevalence of passwords has greatly increased thanks to computers and the Internet, they’ve actually been used, in one form or another, to protect things for hundreds, and even thousands, of years. Inspired by a recent Quora thread, here are a dozen of the most famous passwords used through (mostly recent) history, in both the real and fictional worlds.
For many years during the Cold War, Minuteman nuclear missiles housed in silos in the United States required a trivial eight digit code to be launched: 00000000. U.S. nuclear missiles were required to have launch codes by presidential order in 1962, to safeguard against rogue missile launches. While many missiles weren’t outfitted with this additional level of security for years, the codes were installed on U.S.-based Minuteman missiles under the direction of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Once he left office, Strategic Air Defense commanders, who resented McNamara and were concerned about being able to launch the missiles quickly, set the launch codes to all zeroes. What could go possibly go wrong?
The grandaddy of all passwords is Open Sesame, which was the secret phrase that was used in the famous tale, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, to open a cave containing treasure belonging to a group of thieves. In the story, part of The Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights), a collection of Arabic stories collected over the centuries, Ali Baba, a poor woodcutter, overhears the secret phrase and (tl;dr) eventually gets the treasure. The phrase, of course, is well known and has appeared all over popular culture, including Popeye, Bugs Bunny and SpongeBob.
In 2010, an anonymous Facebook engineer claimed in an an interview that, at one time, employees could log into any Facebook profile using a master password which was a variant on Chuck Norris (replacing some of the letters with symbols and numbers). She claimed she had personally used it and knew of two other employees who had used it to log in and manipulate other users’ data and were subsequently fired. While she said the password no longer worked, it didn’t really matter because it was replaced by a tool which let Facebook employees log in as another user with the click of a button – provided they had a good reason to do so.
In the 1932 Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers, Groucho Marx’s character, Professor Wagstaff, gains access to a speakeasy using the password Swordfish. Since then, it’s become one of the most well known (and spoofed) passwords and has been referenced over the years throughout popular culture. It’s popped up in (among many other places) Scooby Doo, Mad Men, FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman, Harry Potter, and Star Trek. There was even a hacker movie named after it, as well as a Commodore 64 video game.
In June 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-SIGN) Act, which made electronic signatures and contracts legal in interstate and foreign commerce. Appropriately, Clinton signed the bill electronically, using a smart card that was encrypted with a private key named after his dog, Buddy. Aside from being easy to guess, the password was also rendered even less secure when Clinton shared it with those in attendance at the signing in Philadelphia. Just to be safe, he also signed the bill the old fashioned way — with a pen.
In the classic 1983 geek film WarGames, Matthew Broderick’s character, teenage computer whiz David Lightman, hacks into what he thinks is a computer video game company to play some games. Lightman correctly guessed that the backdoor password to the system was Joshua, the name of the deceased son of the games’ programmer. It turns out that what he really hacked into was the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (AKA NORAD) War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) computer and the game of Global Thermonuclear War that he starts almost results in World War III. Not only was the story fictional, of course, but so was WOPR, which was really made of plywood and powered for the movie by an Apple II.
If you ever worked with an Oracle database, chances are you’ve come across the famous Scott schema, accessed with the password Tiger. This is a demonstration schema consisting of a handful of tables (e.g., EMP, DEPT), meant to illustrate some of the basic concepts of Oracle functionality. The schema was created by Bruce Scott, Oracle employee number 4, and the password was named after his daughter’s cat, Tiger. The Scott schema was installed with Oracle by default through version 8; since version 9 it’s still available for manual installation, though a number of newer sample schemas are now included.
In 1981, Xerox released the Star 8010 workstation, a revolutionary computer based on the earlier Alto prototype, that was meant to be used by businesses as part of an office document management system consisting of computers connected via Ethernet. The Star introduced many fundamental interface concepts that became popular, such as a graphical user interface, a bitmapped screen and clickable icons. To perform certain administrative functions on the Star (such as a system recovery), administrators had to use a code of 911 and the password IAcceptTheRisk. The password not only made the system more secure, but also served as an ad hoc Terms of Service.
In The Matrix Reloaded, the second movie in The Matrix trilogy, released in 2000, the character Trinity is seen hacking into the computer system of a power plant. Using a real network mapping tool called Nmap, and exploiting a real SSH vulnerability, she’s able to reset the root password for the system to Z1ON0101, and ultimately take control of it. The password is a variation of Zion, the name of the last human city left on Earth in the movie after the destructive war between humans and machines. The scene won acclaim from hackers for its accuracy — while the rest of the world liked it enough to generate $742 million in ticket sales.
12345 is a famous password for several reasons. First, it’s one of the most commonly chosen passwords. Second, one of the people choosing to use it was Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who picked it as the password to his email account, which was revealed when Anonymous hacked into it in 2012. Finally, 12345 is also known to fans of the Mel Brooks classic comedy Spaceballs as being the password to the planet Druidia’s air shield — as well the code to unlock Mel Brooks’ character’s luggage.
In the first episode of the second season of the BBC series Sherlock (A Scandal in Belgravia, 2012) the famous detective tried to crack the 4-character security code on a mobile phone containing compromising photos of a member of the royal family. He finally figured out the code when he realized that the woman whose phone it was was sweet on him; the code was Sher, which went along with the text on the lock screen to spell “I AM SHER LOCKED.” Obviously, it was — in hindsight, at least — elementary.
In 1972, Xerox engineers at the newly formed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) built a computer called the Multiple Access Xerox Computer (MAXC), which was a clone of a DEC PDP-10 time-sharing mainframe (after DEC wouldn’t sell Xerox a PDP-10). The MAXC was connected to ARPANET, one of the ancestors of the modern internet. Guests could log into the MAXC over ARPANET using a guest account and a password of parc (or maxc, as the passwords were periodically swapped), proving that while those Xerox engineers were really smart and forward-thinking, they weren’t particularly creative.
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