Photo: marc falardeau

Perhaps my biggest surprise has been how willing, eager actually, people are to openly discuss their keepsakes. The friends I queried forwarded my request, and before long I started receiving passwords from complete strangers. There was the former prisoner whose password includes what used to be his inmate identification number (“a reminder not to go back”); the fallen-away Catholic whose passwords incorporate the Virgin Mary (“it’s secretly calming”); the childless 45-year-old whose password is the name of the baby boy she lost in utero (“my way of trying to keep him alive, I guess”).

Sometimes the passwords were playful. Several people said they used “incorrect” for theirs so that when they forgot it, the software automatically prompted them with the right one (“your password is incorrect”). Nicole Perlroth, The New York Times’s cybersecurity reporter, told me about the awkward conversation she had not long ago, when, locked out of her account, she was asked by the newspaper’s tech-support staff to disclose her password: a three-digit code plus an unpublishable epithet — a reference to a funny exchange she overheard years earlier between a store clerk and a thief.

— Ian Urbina, in the New York Times Magazine, on how we instill meaning into the passwords we create.

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