Need a good password? Here's help from a sixth-grader

December 29, 2015 by David Funkhouser, Columbia University
Need a good password? Here’s help from a sixth-grader
Mira Modi

It's cheaper than a couple of subway rides, more powerful than almost any hacker (except maybe the NSA). And, if you think about it, not so hard to remember.

For $4, Mira Modi, 11, daughter of the Earth Institute's Vijay Modi and journalist Julia Angwin, will fix you up with a very secure password—actually a pass phrase of six words. She uses a well-known technique called Diceware that uses rolls of dice to select words at random from an encoded list.

The sixth-grader already has gotten a fair amount of attention for her enterprise, with an interview on NPR and stories in the New York Times, the ArsTechnica website and other media.

"Her business is doing fabulous," says her dad, who's a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University and a member of the Earth Institute faculty. "Her main issue right now is how to juggle the surge in demand with her schoolwork."

"All passwords are Diceware generated and contain six words," Mira says on her website. "I write the passwords by hand and do not keep a copy of what I have sent to you. The passwords are sent by U.S. Postal Mail, which cannot be opened by the government without a search warrant." She also recommends you alter the pass phrase slightly after she sends it to you.

A sample from the Diceware list.

The system she uses was developed by Arnold G. Reinhold to create "strong passwords that are easy to remember but difficult for hackers to crack," she says. "Passwords contain random words from the dictionary, such as: alger klm curry blond puck horse." Six words are recommended—the longer the phrase, the tougher it is to hack.

Of course you can do this for yourself. But for the price, she's happy to save you the time involved.

Her parents have been an important influence on her enterprise.

Vijay Modi says he grew up inspired by steam engines huffing along the rails near his home and a steam-driven textile factory nearby, long before the internet, email and cell phones. "My advice [to Mari] has always been 'how to do it efficiently' in less time. I am an engineer."

Mira had been making informally for a while, he says, before coming up with the idea for the website.

Her mother, Julia Angwin, is an investigative journalist at the independent news organization ProPublica and the author of "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," published in 2014.

"My wife Julia has helped her out enormously with her interest in privacy, and the logistics to get the website running," says Vijay Modi.

"This is my first business (other than occasional lemonade stands!)," Mira says on her website. "But I'm very excited about it and will be very responsible."

Explore further: 'Password' no longer the Internet's worst password

Related Stories

Amazon orders reset for some customers' passwords

November 25, 2015 has required an undisclosed number of customers to reset passwords to their online accounts after the company said some passwords "may have been improperly stored" on devices.

Are you any good at creating passwords?

January 30, 2010

There's an interesting little study that's been done by security firm Imperva, which analyzed some 32 million passwords posted online in December by some enterprising hacker.

Recommended for you

Technology near for real-time TV political fact checks

January 18, 2019

A Duke University team expects to have a product available for election year that will allow television networks to offer real-time fact checks onscreen when a politician makes a questionable claim during a speech or debate.

Privacy becomes a selling point at tech show

January 7, 2019

Apple is not among the exhibitors at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, but that didn't prevent the iPhone maker from sending a message to attendees on a large billboard.

China's Huawei unveils chip for global big data market

January 7, 2019

Huawei Technologies Ltd. showed off a new processor chip for data centers and cloud computing Monday, expanding into new and growing markets despite Western warnings the company might be a security risk.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.