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Saturday, 27 May 2017

Sharing Some "Techspertise" — Learn to Excel at Passwords

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Harness the power of an Excel spreadsheet,,,
One of my first independent consulting gigs was to comb through some extremely looong Lotus 1-2-3 files and break them up into sections/pages. It involved the creation of macros to allow the process to operate on its own. (I remember leaving it running overnight and crossing my fingers in the morning that it would not encounter any hiccups.)

That was so long ago that the exact specs of the job are fuzzy, but it was the first time that I realized the power behind a spreadsheet.

Absolutely nothing that I've used a spreadsheet for since then has been anywhere near as complex as that project, but I still deal with several of them on a daily basis. (The only difference is that they are no longer Lotus 1-2-3 files, but Microsoft Excel. Interested in that story? Take a look here.)

Examples? A multi-tabbed spreadsheet keeps my bank accounts balanced. Finance and accounting were, of course, the main reasons for the invention of an electronic worksheet. Over the years, however, one spreadsheet in particular has become more and more important, and it's the one I want to share with you today: my password keeper.

If you are guilty of using one password for everything, you might want to read on and find out how to change your habits without driving yourself bonkers trying to remember fifty (or more) different passwords.

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Anyone using an electronic device of any sort to connect to the internet these days is, at a minimum, juggling several passwords. (I have 86 rows on my password spreadsheet!)

We are told to use different passwords so it is essentially impossible to remember them all. We are also told to change them frequently, so quite often when we do remember passwords, they might be last year's or last quarter's password. (It's policy at some corporations for everyone to change passwords every three months.) Compounding the problem is the fact that commonly accessed sites/apps don't require us to sign in all the time. Without using those passwords on a regular basis, we are bound to forget them.

In order to follow the rules — and make no mistake, the make different and change often rules of passwords should be followed — I've been using this spreadsheet as my personal password assistant for over ten years now.

password keeper spreadsheet
My password keeper spreadsheet...

It's simple, with only six or seven columns. You won't need to create macros to make this work for you.

[And yes, I know that you can buy/get password management software to help you keep track of your passwords. Call me paranoid, but I'm not about to trust my passwords to the cloud or to some stand-alone program/app that might just lock me out. Google it; it's happened.]

I'm using Excel here because most of us have access to Office. (I'm currently using Microsoft Office 2013.) Make sure you use a version that offers password protection for the file, which is probably all versions with the exception of MS Office Starter 2010.

Step 1: Give Your File a Nondescript Name

What can I say? Don't name this file, MyPasswords, or PasswordKeeper, or PasswordRegister...!

Call it KijijiSales, call it LibraryBookList, call it RoversVetAppts, but don't give it a name that has any reference to passwords in it. This file is meant to sit quietly on your hard drive and be as inconspicuous and uninteresting as possible to anyone who might have occasion to snoop. To be sure, the chances of your personal computer being hacked is pretty darn low, but let's not give anyone the heads up as to what your file contains.

And no, my file is not named per any of the above suggestions.

Step 2: Password Protect Your File

To encrypt and add a password to a file in Excel 2013, go to the following screen (File, Info):

add encryption and password to Excel file
Add encyption and password protection to an Excel file...

The following window pops up for you to enter your password:

Add password...

Note the warnings. After you enter your password — you'll be asked to enter it twice — ensure that you keep track of it somehow. This will be one password that you don't want to lose or forget!

By the way, to reiterate: this file on your private computer is not likely to be hacked. (If you float it up to the cloud to back up, the risk increases; whether you take on that extra risk is your call.) Generally speaking, you don't need to make this password fifty characters long. You might find yourself opening this file quite regularly; don't make it hard on yourself with an awkward password.

Step 3: Enter the Data

Set up the spreadsheet as shown above and use one row for each password that you need to track.

The columns should be fairly self-explanatory. Platform is for name of the company, website or app... everything from Amazon to Zomato.

Under URL, record the web page where you would log in to that platform.

User Name is the name that you use to sign in. This is typically your email address or a unique name. Note that in cases where you can open an account with a user name, you may be tempted to use the same name everywhere. Changing it up ever so slightly each time, however, adds an additional layer of hacking protection.

Password, of course, is for the current password.

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learn how to create
better passwords...
This next one is optional: Class is for classification. I have about seven different types or classes of passwords. For example, one is Finance (i.e., for banking related passwords) and another is Shopping. I follow the rules of password creation in that all of my passwords are different, but I use common elements throughout. Within each class of password, those elements are used in a different order.

Sound cryptic? Password creation should be somewhat cryptic. I don't want to overwhelm you with details here, but the idea of creating small password elements and putting them in a different order for each type of password is very effective. It automatically produces passwords that are easier for you to remember in everyday usage, but aren't easily guessable/hackable. (If you're interested in knowing more about this method of password creation, take a look at my perfecting passwords page. I promise you that if you're at all intrigued by the idea, you'll find the discussion enlightening!)

All that aside, if you don't intend to categorize your passwords, you don't need to have this column.

Last Changed is the date that you last changed this particular password. Most of my passwords are changed once a year. With this information, you can always tell when you're overdue to change a password.

Finally, (OLD) NEW Password is a place to keep track of the previous password, or to "plan" the next password. What I mean by that is, if it's almost time to change a class of passwords, I work out what the new arrangement of elements should be for that class and then enter the proposed new password into that cell on the spreadsheet. (In red text.) When it comes time to change those actual passwords, I can then just copy and paste. It makes the whole "time to change passwords" process a lot less stressful and easier to manage.

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Step 4: Maintain the Data & Keep Current

This whole exercise is pointless if you don't keep it up, so anytime you change a password, open up this file and make sure you record your changes as you go. If you follow my advice about pre-planning your password changes, it will be a snap.

One final tip about this process. Keep your rows in alphabetical order for easy reference. I understand that when you start to put the file together that you will likely enter whatever is first and foremost in your mind, so use the sort function (Home, Sort & Filter, Sort A to Z) to sort your rows once you're done.

sorting in Excel
Sort your rows into alphabetical order when you're done...

Highlight the rows and all of the associated columns that you want to sort. For this command, do not include the header row. Immediately afterwards, you should see the rows in order from A to Z.

sorted Excel data
After sorting...

This is the simplest use of the sorting function in Excel. By default, it is sorting strictly on the first column. Take a look at the Custom Sort option if you want to sort by other columns or by several columns at once. For instance, you may want to list all of the data by Last Changed to see what the oldest dates are.

Make friends with the Undo button and you'll feel confident to explore!

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Have you seen news stories about how family members are helpless to access the online accounts of loved ones after a sudden death?

Can you see how having a spreadsheet like this — with the password and name of the file stored with important documents such as your personal directive and will — could help your survivors find their way through the maze?

I mean, we all "know" certain individuals only through social media platforms. But if something were to happen to you — and I use "you" in the sense of referring to anyone with whom I have had contact via this blog — I might care to know about it. (I'd also like to think that if I suddenly disappeared from my Saturday postings that a few of you might be curious as to my well being!) But if your family members can't even log on to your email accounts to reply that we are sorry to report that... etc., we would all just perpetually wonder, "whatever happened to...?"


Anyway, I hope I've encouraged you to think about this and about using Excel to help you out.

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