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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 7 Issue 2February 2013
Does typing a password you cannot see drive you crazy? Me too!

The Problem
Does this happen to you?
  • You go to the website for your online banking or online shopping, or you open a program like Skype or QuickBooks or your email or something else that requires you to enter a password.
  • You type in your username, which you can see, correcting any mistakes you may make.
  • You type in your password, which you can't see, since asterisks or bullets or dots are displayed instead.
  • Then you click Sign In, and get an error because the password you typed is wrong! Argh!
Assuming you're on the right web site or program and you've typed the username correctly (don't laugh - I've sometimes gotten my usernames mixed up), the problem has to be with the password. But since you can't see what you've typed, you have no idea what the problem is. Did you type an extra character? Did you leave one out? Did you type a capital letter instead of a small one? Did you have Caps Lock or Num Lock on? Or did you type the wrong password altogether?

What should you try next? Typing it again? Typing it again more slowly? Clicking "Forgot your password?" and going through that process, and then trying again from the beginning?

I have seen this very quickly turn into an exercise in frustration with a number of clients.

A simple solution: Type the password into a second window where you can see what you're typing, then Copy and Paste it into the first window
Here's a relatively simple way to solve this problem when the failure to sign in is caused by mistyping the password:
  • When you get to the sign-in screen, after typing your username or email address, leave that window right where it is (i.e., don't close it) and open another empty window where you can type some text. This could be a new blank Microsoft Word window, Notepad on Windows, TextEdit on Macintosh, a new message window in your email, etc. To keep this simple, I'll refer to this as the "text window" below.
  • Make sure no one is looking over your shoulder. (Cue the "Secret Agent" theme song.)
  • Temporarily type the password into this empty text window instead. (You're not going to save it.) Don't press the Enter or Return key. Look it over, make sure it's correct, including its uppercase and lowercase letters.
  • Select (or highlight) the password.
  • Copy it to the Clipboard. Here are three easy methods: Pull down the Edit menu and click Copy; do Ctrl-C on your keyboard (Command-C on Macintosh); right-click on the selected text and then click Copy in the menu that appears.
  • Close the text window, don't save it.
  • Go back to the sign-in window.
  • Click in the password field or box.
  • Paste in the password. Here are three easy methods: Pull down the Edit menu and click Paste; do Ctrl-V on your keyboard (Command-V on Macintosh); right-click in the password box and then click Paste in the menu that appears.
  • Proceed with signing in. (Cue the big guitar and drum finish!)
This might seem like a lot of steps, but once you've tried it once or twice, it's actually a lot quicker and easier than it looks - Open other window, type password, select it, Copy, close window without saving, Paste into password field.

The good news is that this technique can save you a lot of time and frustration if you know the right password but just have trouble typing it when you can't see it.

The bad news is that this technique takes a little more work, and it won't help at all if you've got the wrong password in mind. (The best way to solve that problem is to gather and organize your usernames and passwords into a list or chart. If it's on paper, keep it under lock and key; if it's electronic, store it in a password-protected manner using modern encryption, e.g., using TrueCrypt or a secure password database, not a simple Word or Excel file called "Passwords.")

But doesn't my web browser type my passwords for me?
Most web browsers have the ability to notice when you're signing in and offer to remember your usernames and passwords so they can type them for you in the future. While this feature is convenient (and therefore less secure), it doesn't solve the basic problem. You have to type your password correctly at least once for this "autofill" mechanism to be productive in the long term. In other words, if you permit it, your web browser will remember the password you typed, regardless of whether it's the right password or the wrong one!

Problems typing passwords on a smartphone (iPhone, Android, etc.) or tablet (iPad, etc.)?
Typing passwords correctly on smartphones and tablets can be even more difficult. The on-screen keyboards are smaller and more crowded, making it even more likely that you'll mistype something. However, they often have a slightly kinder method of password masking: As you tap, each character of the password will be visible for a moment before it turns into a bullet or dot. On the other hand, you have to look up from the keyboard area to see it.

If you want to use my Copy-and-Paste technique on a smartphone or tablet, you could try it with the following adjustments:
  • You would use a separate App (e.g., "Notes") to temporarily type your password, but you should be careful to delete that text before closing the note to avoid saving that password in an insecure manner.
  • You may have the ability to set aside one App (where you're signing in) then go to a "Notes" App (where you'd type in your password and Copy it to the Clipboard by pressing and holding on the password text) and then return to your sign-in screen, or you may have to plan ahead to Copy your password to the Clipboard prior to signing in.
This convention of hiding your password from view as you type is called "password masking." The idea is that without masking, someone else might see your password as you type it. While that's certainly more likely if you use your laptop at a coffee shop and sign into your email or online banking with other people all around you, most of the time you're probably at home or at work with no one else in the room. However, since the computer doesn't know who else can see your screen, the conservative approach of masking was developed.

The need to make longer and more secure passwords (which are therefore more complicated) also makes it more likely that you'll make mistakes when you type them, especially when they are masked.

Unfortunately, the hassle caused by masking can lead users to choose simpler, less secure passwords because they're easier to type.

Some sign-in screens have the option to turn off password masking
While password masking is prudent, the best combination is when you have the option of turning it off, so you can choose what's best for you in your particular situation.

However, since every password screen is separately engineered, there is no universal "show password" mechanism. The good news is that I've started to notice a small number of sign-in screens where the developer permits you to turn off password masking and see what you're typing. Kudos to:
  • Both Windows and Macintosh versions of the free TrueCrypt encryption software (available from http://www.TrueCrypt.org)
  • The "Sign in to My Account" page on the www.LandsEnd.com website
  • The Windows "Connect to a Network" wireless password dialog
  • The Macintosh AirPort wireless password dialog
  • The password dialog when creating an encrypted PDF in PDFCreator for Windows, a free virtual printer driver (available from http://sourceforge.net/projects/pdfcreator)
  • Password masking (hiding your password while you're typing it) is an unfortunate reality of modern computers and security.
  • One way to work around it is to open a second typing window and use Copy and Paste.
  • If you've never had a reason to learn Copy and Paste, perhaps reducing the frustration of entering passwords will spark your interest.
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2013 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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